Free team collective intelligence tool: Delphi

The Delphi Technique is a proven way to harness collective group intelligence (popularly known as "the wisdom of crowds") in a wide range of applications. It is also non-proprietary and supported by a number of excellent free resources.

The wisdom of soccer crowds

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Delphi has been around since the 1950's with a large body of support material, case studies and tools on the web and should be part of any virtual team, community or network leader's toolset.

About 15 years ago as a naive but enthusiastic software project manager I was first introduced to the Delphi technique as a way to try and produce better software development estimates - an area fraught with failure.

Application of Delphi

More recently I have been looking at Delphi again, prompted by the "Wisdom of Crowds" book, and discovered that it is much much more than a software estimating technique and has been successfully used for:

  • Gathering current and historical data not accurately known or available

  • Examining the significance of historical events

  • Evaluating possible budget allocations

  • Exploring urban and regional planning options

  • Planning university campus and curriculum development

  • Putting together the structure of a model

  • Delineating the pros and cons associated with potential policy options

  • Developing causal relationships in complex economic or social phenomena

  • Distinguishing and clarifying real and perceived human motivations

  • Exposing priorities of personal values, social goals

Background to Delphi

Delphi was born way back in the early 1950's out of a US Air force sponsored Rand Corporation research study to develop a method for "obtaining the most reliable consensus of a group of experts... by a series of questionnaires interspersed with controlled opinion feedback"

There are many different definitions of Delphi but in generic simple terms it can be defined as:

"A method for structuring a group communication process so that the process is effective in allowing a group of individuals, as a whole, to deal with a complex problem"

To accomplish this "structured communication" there are generally four main elements in any Delphi exercise:

  1. feedback of individual contributions of information and knowledge

  2. assessment of the group judgement

  3. opportunity for individuals to revise views

  4. some degree of anonymity for the individual responses

Advantages of Delphi

There would seem to me to be three huge advantages of exploring Delphi in virtual enterprises, teams, networks and communities:

  1. Delphi has a large body of public domain support resources and case studies

    One of the best resources is a free e-book on the Delphi Method by Harold Linstone and Murray Turoff which I have drawn heavily on in researching this article.

  2. Delphi is applicable to a wide range of group applications

    Delphi suits applications with the following characteristics:

    a. The problem does not lend itself to precise analytical techniques but can benefit from subjective judgments on a collective basis

    b. The individuals needed to contribute to the examination of a broad or complex problem have no history of adequate communication and may represent diverse backgrounds with respect to experience or expertise

    c. More individuals are needed than can effectively interact in a face-to-face exchange

    d. Time and cost make frequent group meetings infeasible

    e. The efficiency of face-to-face meetings can be increased by a supplemental group communication process

    f. Disagreements among individuals are so severe or politically unpalatable that the communication process must be refereed and/or anonymity assured

    g. The heterogeneity of the participants must be preserved to assure validity of the results, i.e., avoidance of domination by quantity or by strength of personality ("bandwagon effect")

  3. Delphi has good web-based support tools

    There are two main forms of Delphi - the conventional 'paper and pencil' form known as the "Delphi Exercise" and the newer form called a "Delphi Conference" which takes advantage of the internet and email to enhance the interactive nature of the process.

    There is a neat web-based Delphi Freeware tool which I am currently evaluating in one of my research projects. It describes itself as " a data-gathering tool to aid in the anonymous survey of expert judgments, obtained in a series of rounds." and allows you to set up free accounts to administer and participate in electronic Delphi sessions.

    A number of other Delphi support tools are listed here.

Finally a word of warning

Because Delphi is so easy to use Linstone and Turoff report that many people think it is just 'common sense' and try it out without properly understanding it first.

These Delphi exercises are inevitably not successful so I would suggest you review the free resources first and try out the support tools before you unleash it into your unsuspecting organisation, team, community or network.

An earlier version of this article was published on April, 2007.

About Ken Thompson

Ken Thompson is an expert practitioner in the area of bioteaming, swarming, virtual enterprise networks, virtual professional communities and virtual teams and has published two landmark books:

Bioteams: High Performance Teams Based on Nature's Best Designs

The Networked Enterprise: Competing for the future through Virtual Enterprise Networks

Ken writes the highly popular bioteams blog which has over 500 articles on all aspects of bioteams (aka organizational biomimicry) - in other words how human groups can learn from nature's best teams.

Ken is also founder of an exciting European technology company Swarmteams which provides unique patent-pending bioteaming technologies for all shapes and sizes of groups, social networks, business clusters, virtual/mobile communities and enterprises. Swarmteams enables groups to be more responsive and agile by fully integrating their mobile phones and the web with bioteam working techniques. The latest Swarmteams implementation is SwarmTribes which helps musicians and bands form a unique collaboration with their fans for mutual benefit.

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