The Wisdom of Crowds


I’ve just finished reading James Surowiecki’s The Wisdom of Crowds. It is a book that I’ve heard bandied about as a seminal text in the Web 2.0 world. It is therefore rather surprised me that the internet isn’t mentioned in the book at all. The book has been picked up by Web 2.0 enthusiasts who see echoes of their own enthusiasms in its conclusions – but is isn’t actually about Web 2.0.


Wisdom of Crowds is subtitled “Why the many are smarter than the few” and as such sets about proving in a variety of ways that individuals, even very brilliant ones, are unlikely to have all of the answers. The book is based on experimental economics and social psychology and uses a variety of different bits of research and anecdote to demonstrate that an aggregated answer from a number of people is usually more likely to be right than the best guess of an expert. This is all good stuff and seems all the more valuable now Web 2.0 technologies are helping people to collaborate and aggregate their opinions.


Surowiecki is keen to explain that group opinions are not necessarily better than individual opinions all the time. If the group is working closely together there is a danger that they will all come to the same decision or that they will simply norm towards the view point of a particularly persuasive member. If the group is too similar they will lack the diversity that leads to a strong aggregated opinion. Surowiecki sets out the following three principles

  • Independence
  • Diversity
  • Decentralisation

As being essential for the wisdom of crowds to function.


So far so left wing platitude. The many are greater than the few, the people have the answer etc etc. What is interesting however is the way that Surowiecki’s message is articulated largely as an appreciation of markets. Generally he feels that markets represent the strongest tool for aggregating opinions, better than collective consensus, better than democracy and so on. This is the case because in other aggregating mechanisms (such as democracy) the answer usually emerges as the result of some discussion. Through the discussion people tend to come to some kind of consensus and the value of having diverse decision makers involved is reduced. Although Surowiecki doesn’t say this it seems that first past the post democratic systems are more likely to lead to this kind of compromise that more proportional systems.


As I read this I suppose I was a little uncomfortable with the enthusiasm for markets. I’ve tended to view free markets as a pretty problematic element of governance and one that tends to reward the rich and powerful at the expense of the poor and numerous. I’ve probably moderated some of my opinions on this somewhat and have come to believe that a mix of state power, markets and common ownership exist in all economies, even those that claim to be lassez faire or command economies. The question therefore remains what the blend between state, market, individual and collective needs to be. However reading Surowiecki has made me realise that the market is a mechanism that can be employed in a variety of contexts. When we speak of markets we are not only speaking of capital markets, we can also be speaking of markets in ideas or markets in prediction. Twitter is a good example of a market in ideas – things live or die on Twitter because people retweet or engage in them. There is no vote, no majority decision etc, it is therefore not democratic in any meaningful sense, but is rather a vibrant market in ideas.


So what are the implications of this for careers work? On one hand it represents a very significant challenge to the idea of expertise. Surowiecki would argue that the advice that is given by an expert is much less likely to be right than that given by a wide range of individuals. So the answer to questions like “what should I do?” or “what is it like to be an accountant” is likely to be better if the people giving the answers include a range of people (parents, friends, accountants, people in other professions etc etc). From this viewpoint the careers worker’s role might be to design appropriate systems for people to aggregate the opinions of others in a productive way. Advice would be about how to network, gather diverse opinions and synthesise them, rather than providing a simple answer to a question.

I think that some careers workers have been doing this anyway. However, reading the Wisdom of Crowds might help people challenge some of their assumptions and come up with new ways of thinking about their roles.


As ever all thoughts and ideas on this are appreciated…


National all-age guidance services

I’ve just read Tony Watts’ National all-age career guidance services: evidence and issues from the current issue of the British Journal of Guidance and Counselling. This is a useful summary of the current policy situation in England in the context of existing services in Scotland, Wales and New Zealand. Tony is a major supporter of the all-age approach, so unsurprisingly the article concludes that “the case for an all-age service as a professional spine within a lifelong guidance system is strongly supported by the existing evidence.”


Along the way the article rehearses the pros and cons of this approach and I thought that it might be useful to set it out these here.



·         Cost-effectiveness

·         Coherence and continuity of provision

·         Avoids rigid cut-off points

·         Provides the possibility of synergies and added value



  • The needs of young people are different from those of adults
  • Young people and adults don’t want to go to the same kinds of places for services
  • Age specific services are more likely to be holistic
  • There is a danger that young people would marginalise adults if all were together in an all age service.


The article takes on each of these points and makes the argument that the evidence points us towards an all age service. This is very likely to be the case and an all age approach seems to have strong support within the guidance profession. However, the reason I thought I’d blog this was to see if I could get any discussion going. I’d like to hear a bit more from the advocates of age specific services before I really make up my mind on this one.


So over to you….


We???re all career researchers now

I’ve just finished reading Phil McCash’s article ‘We’re all career researchers now: breaking open career education and DOTS’. Essentially the article is a critique of the DOTS model of career education, making the case that this creates an artificial distinction between the individual and their environment. McCash argues that we should see career as a social act, situated in an environment rather than an individual act that is conducted in relation to an environment. I find this to be a useful distinction – our careers are influenced by others, and also influence others. By focusing on the individual all the time we tend to construct other people as the problem “you can’t move to get this job because of your family”. Whereas if we see career as an interaction within a social environment we get a much more textured view of career where individual actions have consequences and implications for others and where family, friends and community can be constructed as part of the career rather than an alternative to it.


McCash then goes on to propose a model where the career learner is transformed into a career researcher. By engaging with career theory people can be encouraged to explore various conceptions of career and by developing the skills to interrogate the world around them (becoming researchers) people have the tools to investigate the viability and implications of these conceptions. McCash then goes on to locate this within the higher education curriculum essentially making the point that if we understand career education in these terms it fits very comfortably into a higher education curriculum that emphasises critical thinking and self-directed inquiry.


This focus on critical thinking and inquiry obviously has implications for the training of careers workers. Encouraging other to develop this kind of relationship between theory and practice requires the development of a very different set of skills to those required to support people to identify and match themselves to labour market opportunities. It also has implications for careers workers relationship to other professionals. This is especially true in the HE context where an increased focus on educational and employment outcomes has been seen as being in opposition to a tradition of liberal education. If we can reconceive careers work around the idea of critical inquiry and then communicate this to others we have the opportunity to relocate it within the progressive centre of higher education ideology.


As ever translating theory into practice is the real challenge. However, there is much food for thought in this article.


CREATE – are you signing up?



I don’t know whether people have seen the new campaign from the ICG – Create: a campaign for careers.

The campaign encourages people and organisations to sign up to the following:

C = careers services that maximise individuals’ talents and


R = realising everyone’s potential through universal,
targeted and high-quality careers provision with consistent 
       standards across the UK

E = entitlement to impartial careers information, advice
       and guidance

A = access to diverse well-trained and qualified careers
at times and places most relevant to
       individuals’ needs
T = tangible results demonstrating that professional careers
       work contributes to employment, social mobility, diversity
       and equality

E = excellence in careers services, equipping individuals
with confidence, resilience and motivation to
in a fast-changing global economy


I’d be really interested to hear what people think about the campaign. Will you be signing up?


I think that these are all worthwhile statements – although currently a little short on detail. I’ll be really interested to see how the campaign unfolds over the next few months. I think that raising the profiles of careers work is very important in the current economic and political situation – however, I think that we want to be very careful not to claim that we have all the answers. Careers work is broader than professional careers advisers and also requires that careers professionals build strong lateral relationships with other professionals. If this campaign can raise the profile of both the work and the workers then you can count me in.


A book on online research methods

I’ve been asked to write a book proposal for a book on online research methods. A brief   version of what I’ve come up with so far follows. I’d appreciate any comments – would you buy this? read it? suggest it to students? have I got the contents right? is there anything missing?

Any thoughts appreciated…

What is online research? Using the internet for social science research


This book will provide an invaluable overview of the field of online research in the social sciences. The book will set out the key issues faced by social scientists undertaking research online. It is aimed at a non-technical social science audience and will be useful for existing researchers who wish to develop their practice to include research online and for new researchers who are studying social research methods.

Online research methods draw on a wide range of methodological and disciplinary traditions and this eclecticism can make the literatures difficult to access. This book will provide a broad survey of the field and introduce readers to the theoretical, ethical, methodological and practical issues that should be considered in undertaking online research. The book will examine both research that is designed to investigate online phenomenon and research that uses online methods to examine offline phenomenon. It will also discuss how the increasing blurring of the online and offline environments (e.g. through mobile technologies) creates a need for new composites of online and offline methodologies.

The book will examine how a range of methodological traditions have been translated online and will include chapters on online surveys, focus groups and interviews, ethnographies and experiments. All of these methodological approaches will be discussed within the broader context of a consideration about the nature of the online space and the ethics of undertaking research within it.

The book will provide researchers with the skills and knowledge that they need to undertake online research projects. Key to this will be a series of case studies which will illuminate the different approaches (surveys, ethnographies etc) by drawing on the experiences of seasoned online researchers. These case studies will be based on research published in peer-reviewed academic journals but supplemented with interviews with the researchers about their methodological decisions and the challenges that they overcame in conducting this research.

Suggested contents

1) Introduction (2000)

2) Negotiating the jargon (2000)

3) A brief history of online research methods (4000)

4) Dealing with ethical issues in online research (4000)

5) Online surveys (4000)

6) Online interviews and focus groups (4000)

7) Online ethnographies (4000)

8) Online experiments (4000)

9) Where next for online methods? (4000)

10) Annotated bibliography (3000)


Recruiting researchers: survey of employer practice 2009


Vitae’s newest publication (written by Maica Rubio and myself) explores the practices of non-higher education employers in relation to doctoral graduates. Recruiting researchers: survey of employer practice 2009 argues that around three quarters of employers are interested in recruiting doctoral graduates but that only around a third have a clear strategy for attracting this group. The report also highlights the fact that where employers are well informed, have strong relationships with universities and have experience of doctoral graduates they are much more likely to target them in recruitment. There is a clear need for the higher education sector to communicate the value of this cohort more effectively. However there is also advantage to be gained for those employers who actively target researchers. Employers who had experience of researchers rated their competencies higher than those who did not have experience of the group. In the right roles researcher can clearly add a lot to a business.

Hopefully you’ll think that the report is worth a read.

One of the things that struck me as we were finishing it off and presenting it at the Vitae Policy Forum this year was how the context for giving careers advice for researchers has changed over the last few years. When I started working with this group we knew almost nothing about the labour market for doctoral graduates. We now have the What do researchers do? series which provides quantitative information on researcher first destinations and qualitative career histories. The addition of this publication on employer practice fills out the picture even further. We now know a huge amount about the researcher labour market. What is more we know that the researcher labour market is very broad (both inside and outside of HE). The LDLHE also tells us that postgraduates are likely to perform better in the labour market than undergraduates. So, those of us who’ve been involved in the Roberts Agenda should feel pretty pleased as we can now confidently say that researchers have lots of career options and that there is also lots of information to help them make their decisions. Well done us!

So what do we need next to fill out the picture further?

NICEC Seminar: Careers work with 14-19s


David Andrews (NICEC) presented a paper entitled “Careers Co-ordinators in Schools: Getting Qualified”. Helen Colley (Manchester Met) presented “14-19 career guidance in England: an unbecoming profession?” Taken together these two papers gave a really good overview of the issues faced by those people who are doing careers work with young people. What follows is my summary of some of the main issues and some of my thoughts – so don’t blame David and Helen for any of this ramble.


The provision of careers education, information, advice and guidance for young people is patchy at best. In schools a variety of people have the title of ‘Careers Co-ordinator’ these include teachers, school management, administrators, learning mentors and occasionally people employed specifically to for the job (including some, but not many, trained careers advisers). These people do the job with varying degrees of enthusiasm, have varying degrees of time, expertise and qualifications.


Outside of schools you have Connexions services which are providing a service targeted at the NEET group. Many of them are also working with other young people through their work in schools or the community, but the focus is on reducing social exclusion. This approach has been much criticised as failing to provide a universal service for all young people and also for creating an undifferentiated professional who combines elements of social worker, careers adviser and educational welfare officer without the expertise of any of these.


The space for qualified careers advisers in working with young people is pretty limited. Nonetheless lots of careers work inevitably goes on with these groups often delivered by people who have little understanding of the labour market and no training in guidance. I’m not arguing that all personal and career development should be done by “careers work professionals”, there is undoubtedly lots of room for teachers, parents, peers and all sorts of other people in delivering this. Nonetheless the fact that there is no space for careers work, no opportunity for a community of practice to develop and almost no one with any power in the educational system to champion the value of careers work seems to be pretty disastrous. If the educational system doesn’t provide young people with the opportunity to think about what they enjoy, what the world outside of school is like and how to transition to the next stage of their life it is surely failing. The existence of a stronger profession of careers workers in the system would be one way to achieve this.


It seems pretty clear to me that the careers element of the school system shouldn’t only be open to the most vulnerable. In fact I’d go as far as to say that careers advice should be available to all throughout life. Supporting those at the bottom of the economy and educational systems is important, but there also seem to be strong reasons to support middle and high achievers to also consider their career paths. The hang-wringing that goes on about not getting enough people into STEM is just one place where this is true. However the way that we get all young people to consider their career does not have to be built on the traditional way that career guidance has been delivered. Guidance interviews have a place but it seems likely that we need an approach that is easier to scale up. No matter how we complain about being under resourced we are unlikely to see dramatic increases in the current climate so new models of delivery need to emerge.


The problem with saying that the profession needs to develop new models and approaches is that lots of careers workers don’t have the space or time to think like this. They are struggling with the immediate problems and circumstances of the situation that they are in and while they undoubtedly have opportunities to resist the worst of the current system they don’t really have the space to develop new approaches and to argue for their adoption. The professional associations undoubtedly have a role to play in this as do research led organisations like NICEC and iCeGS. There is room for some radical thinking here as well as some strong campaigning around the value of careers work.

 I’m just heading back from a very interesting NICEC seminar looking at careers work with 14-19 year olds. I thought I’d use this blog post just to throw some thoughts around because I can’t do justice to the two papers that were presented.