02/20/2013 01:12 pm ET Updated Apr 22, 2013

The Crowd Picked a Cat. What Are Crowds Good for, Anyway?

Hasbro recently made their decision to axe the iron and replace it with a cat as the new game piece for their classic Monopoly game. Last time they updated tokens was the 1950s when there was no online option for figuring out the best way to ditch the purse, the lantern and the rocking horse. In the 1950s, no doubt a committee met, perhaps some customers were consulted, but for sure no Facebook campaign was part of the selection process.

Not surprising that an Internet-based vote would lean heavily toward a cat. According to Yahoo! Canada, there are currently more than 110,000 cat videos on YouTube. Cats are popular icons among the online crowd.

But is a cat the best decision for a game piece? And thinking more broadly about crowds and commerce, when does it make sense and when does it NOT make sense to cast a wide net for input into business decisions?

Luckily I just attended a conference dedicated to the power of online collaboration--the Spigit Innovation Summit--so I had a chance to reflect on some guidelines that we can use to consider when a crowd makes business better and when they should stay out of the way. Spigit is one of a number of software tools that makes online collaboration easy, creating virtual whiteboards for brainstorming. In companies from Cisco to Qualcomm to Citi to Allstate, large communities of employees use the Spigit platform (or systems like it) to improve and accelerate strategic decisions, allow broad groups of employees to weigh in on ideas, provide feedback, contribute to a huge suggestion box, and even participate in group creation of new product or service ideas through events like hackathons as well as longer-term implementation initiatives. But just because a company CAN involve a lot of people in strategy, does it mean they should? What are the guidelines for using connections to serve business strategy and when are social connections less relevant, helpful, or productive?

Ellen Levy, formerly VP of Strategic Initiatives with LinkedIn and industry expert in social networks, spoke at the innovation summit and summarized her 7 C's of Social Enterprise--what she considers to be the critical components of an online social experience. When she's evaluating the relative market strength of an online company, she's looking for offerings that check off as many boxes as possible and her list is a crisp description of the dimensions of a socially connected enterprise.

I'll use Ellen's 7 C's as the yin to the yang to frame the other important question--in looking at the inner workings of any business, where does social connection make sense and what should the crowd NOT mess with?

Ellen Levy's 7 C's of a Socially Connected Enterprise
1. Connect. Create links between people.
2. Consume. Allow users to read, listen, play.
3. Collect. File repositories, Instagram, Picasa.
4. Contribute. Voting, sharing. Even competing (X Prize, Innocentive)
5. Communicate. Interacting, chatting, discussing, telling, asking.
6. Coordinate. Scheduling, inviting, organizing.
7. Collaborate. Working together (Spigit), supporting things of mutual interest (IndieGoGo, Kickstarter), even inventing (Quirky).

Thinking about the 7 C's brings up an equally important list--business decisions crowds should stay away from. Just because you CAN put decisions, ideas or initiatives out to a larger audience doesn't mean you should. To balance the 7 C's I'll present my working list of Guidelines for When Business Should Be Crowd-Free (and invite others to build on the concept):

1. When a crowd will lead to compromise or group think. Compromise is not always the best approach in business. I think back to a family vacation where one child wanted to visit a museum and the other wanted to go zip lining through the jungle. A compromise? Not possible. Sometimes families (and companies) have to decide what not to do rather than try to do two things halfway.

2. When a crowd will force consensus over bravery. Committee input that leads toward consensus can be a hell of a way to manage but a lousy way to lead. When I talked with Bill Teuber from EMC about their VMware acquisition (before people knew a lot about the future of the cloud), he explained that it was such a forward thinking idea that only a few people understood the potential. They lead, they acquired, they thrived.

3. When a crowd has no curation. Crowds that invent require curation to make sure they don't invent camels on the way to trying to design a racehorse. Asking the community for opinions can be a vital stage in collecting ideas, but putting those suggestions and brainstorms into a context requires a different perspective.

Which gets us back to the Hasbro cat. Someone at Hasbro figured out it was time to move on and update their classic game piece. The crowd involvement generated buzz. Success could be defined as game sales based on the popularity of the new piece. But, it's just as important for companies like Hasbro to realize when to turn off the spigot of public opinion. Which bold moves for the future should not be decided based on online buzz?