Rapid Decision Making for Complex Issues

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Report: Rapid Decision Making for Complex Issues. HOW TECHNOLOGIES OF COOPERATION CAN HELP. Andrea Saveri and Howard Rheingold. INSTITUTE FOR THE FUTURE, 2005.

URL = http://www.rheingold.com/cooperation/decisionmaking.pdf


"A new capacity for rapid, ad hoc, and distributed decision making is emerging from the intersection of technologies of cooperation and new knowledge about the nature of cooperation and cooperative strategies. This report investigates the challenges, strategies, technologies, and best practices that will shape this new capacity." (http://www.rheingold.com/cooperation/decisionmaking.pdf)

Executive Summary


The challenges arise particularly when decision makers are engaged with complex issues involving multiple stakeholders, unanticipated events, ad hoc structures or groups, and uncertain or unstable environments.

Among the key challenges that practitioners report are:

  • Overcoming poor infrastructures
  • Leveraging expertise
  • Coping with volatile information dynamics
  • Catalyzing information sharing
  • Overcoming mistrust
  • Parsing signal from noise
  • Reconciling multiple players and stakeholders
  • Delineating boundaries of authority
  • Responding to changes in event status


Four main strategic domains emerge from the analysis of these challenges in the context of technologies of cooperation and cooperative strategy:

  • Develop both stocks and flows of information. Among the strategic imperatives here are making a multiple “thin slices,” activating network links with experts and specialists to open up flows; liberating tacit knowledge into network stocks; developing rapid feedback

mechanisms from local sources; linking top–down and bottom–up information flows; developing hybrid technology ecologies; and removing constraints on “knowledge bandwidth.”

  • Cultivate ongoing sense-making cycles. Sense making is enhanced by the technologies and practices of collective intelligence. The strategic guidelines for building collective intelligence include visualizing data to improve pattern recognition; conducting ongoing hypotheses testing; developing multiple online spaces for different kinds of intellectual processes; supporting public cognition; and developing interpretation frameworks using cultural filters.

  • Identify surrogates for rapid trust to build social capital. Trust is a key currency among distributed decision makers and decision-support experts. Identity and the transitive nature of trust play key roles in developing effective strategies. The guidelines here include developing appropriate social accounting mechanisms; developing real-time social accounting tools; developing forms of memory to acculturate newbies; providing diverse opportunities for socialization, determining what the “deep structure” of the team is based on; developing sensitivity to how the social contract emerges; and investing in institutional ways to valuate social capital.

* Distribute control to optimize creative freedom. Leadership will become increasingly emergent in decision making supported by cooperative technologies and strategies, changing the mechanisms of control. Several strategic principles serve as guidelines here, including supporting self-election of tasks; facilitating contextual leadership; encouraging mutual monitoring and sanctioning; leveraging long and local tails of innovation; integrating hierarchical and network structures, and thinking in terms of thresholds rather than boundaries.


A host of new “technologies of cooperation” present significant opportunities for improving ad hoc, distributed decision making.

They cluster into eight key categories, each with implications for the strategies described above:

  • Self-organizing mesh networks, which support new ways of creating and managing stocks and flows of information, as well as sense making, based on the principle of growth from the edges and a distributed burden of infrastructure
  • Community computing grids, which model efficient use of resources and solve complex problems
  • Peer production networks, which provide a framework for rapid problem solving and understanding complex phenomena
  • Social mobile computing, which builds contextual understanding of problems and dilemmas

and fosters group identity (and therefore, trust) in ad hoc situations

  • Social software, which builds trusted networks and networked knowledge bases to enhance

sense making, trust, and emergent leadership.

  • Social accounting methods, which take advantage of rating, ranking, and referral mechanisms

to build trust and provide important management controls and levers for leaders.

  • Knowledge collectives, which demonstrate structures, rules, and practices for managing knowledge as a collectively created common-pool resource.


Based on this research, we arrive at seven guiding principles for designing and supporting social and technical platforms that would more effectively support rapid decision making in ad hoc, distributed environments:

  • Rapid decision making is an ongoing process that relies on ongoing collective

intelligence processes.

  • Rapid decision making requires flexible governance.
  • Individuals in nested social, cognitive networks make effective rapid decisions.
  • Rapid trust building is essential for creating environments for rapid decision making

to thrive.

  • Culture is a critical interpretive lens for rapid decision making.
  • Technologies must focus on social, not database, issues.
  • Power is shared among the contributors.


"Considering the challenges and strategies discussed in this report, we suggest several principles that would support best practices for ad hoc, rapid decision making. These are meant to be guiding principles for designing and supporting both social and technical platforms.

  • Rapid decision making is an ongoing process that relies on ongoing collective intelligence processes. Decisions transform the status of situations, events, people, and choices. They can act as triggers that create state changes that may lead to new decisions. This generative process requires constant intelligence building—continuous information stocks and flows as well as ongoing sense making and validation of knowledge. Technologies of cooperation offer new possibilities for ongoing shared creation and visualization of information; organization of information into ad hoc knowledge categories,

access to social networks, and display of nodes of connectivity. They bring a new persistence to knowledge creation and collaboration that supports continuous collective-intelligence processes.

  • Rapid decision making requires flexible governance. Strategies for governing ad hoc, rapid decision-making structures benefit if they span three different forms—norms, rules, and laws. Norms are the most implicit form of regulating behavior, while laws are the most explicit. As one moves from norms to rules to laws, communication and use of these governing mechanisms need to shift from implicit to explicit practices. Cooperative strategies and technologies use all three types of governance. Learning when and how to use each one will become a core capability of successful organizations.
  • Social software and social accounting methods are particularly effective in creating mechanisms for supporting and communicating implicit norms and rules; technical rationality emerges as a governing principle in peer production networks; and ad hoc cultural norms are characteristic in smart mobs and other forms of social mobile computing.

Individuals in nested social and cognitive networks make effective rapid decisions. Rapid decisions seem to arise best from individuals who are connected to a rich, dynamic set of social networks that can provide rapid cognitive loops and refinement of judgment. Consensus processes for rapid decisions in ad hoc environments can only be successful if there are effective rapid processes of sense making, very high levels of trust, and broad creative freedoms among network members. Individual decision makers will need to learn how to catalyze and capitalize on the value created by these network processes." (http://www.rheingold.com/cooperation/decisionmaking.pdf)