Benefits of crowdsourcing: Common Misconceptions
In my previous post, I gave a working definition of crowdsourcing and described two major crowdsourcing approaches: adding capacity and accessing expertise.
I also argued that although numerous organizations – including corporations, governmental agencies, and nonprofits – have used crowdsourcing to solve complex business problems, its wider adoption in the marketplace has been relatively slow.
Some of the reasons for the slow adoption of crowdsourcing are rooted in the very nature of the method. There is widespread uncertainty regarding which business problems crowdsourcing can and cannot solve. Besides, many organizations – especially those new to the approach – have trouble “matching” their specific problems to the crowdsourcing platform best suited for solving them. I’ll address these issues in future posts.
This infographic from ‘The Horizons Tracker’ offers an overview of what crowdsourcing activities are best suited to particular business and government needs. However, many companies still struggle to match crowdsourcing to their specific requirements.
Adopting crowdsourcing also implies change – most importantly, change in the organizational culture – and the change management process is never easy. In the following, I’ll cover this aspect of adopting crowdsourcing, as well highlight the common misconceptions you need to be aware of when dealing with this effective method.
Experts vs. Crowds – Which are More Reliable?
There are a few cultural factors slowing down the adoption of crowdsourcing as a practical problem-solving method. One of them is the lack of trust in the intellectual power of the crowd and its ability to tackle complex problems. Everyone would seem to agree that the proverbial “wisdom of crowds” can be applied to a ‘simple’ task – such as reporting potholes in the City of Boston, or creating a corporate logo. However, when it comes to answering a question that requires specialized knowledge, the benefits of crowdsourcing are called into question. Thus, many organizations prefer to turn to experts.
The general reluctancy to replace experts with a crowd naturally sits well with the experts themselves. The latter are often scornful of the idea that someone with no immediate experience in their field could solve a problem that they couldn’t. This sentiment was eloquently expressed in a 2010 Visions Magazine article by James A. Euchner:
One author went as far as calling crowds stupid, citing Brexit as a clear example of crowds’ “stupidity.”
The fundamental flaw in the notion that people participating in crowdsourcing campaigns are just a bunch of “amateurs” lies in the fact that, in real life, crowds are composed of experts. They might not be experts working for your company, or in your industry, or in your country – or be proficient in your area of expertise. But they’re experts, nonetheless. Moreover, academic research shows that a contributor’s likelihood of solving a problem increases according to the distance between his or her own field of technical expertise and the problem’s domain.
Pitting “experts” against “crowds” when speaking of crowdsourcing is completely counterproductive. Experts represent an essential part of any crowdsourcing campaign. Only experts can identify and properly formulate problems facing organizations. Only experts can evaluate incoming external submissions to select those that make sense. Only experts can successfully integrate external information with the knowledge available in-house. It’s at this midpoint in the problem-solving process – at the stage of generating potential solutions to the problem – that crowds are usually superior to experts.
Crowdsourcing and Brainstorming – What are they So Often Confused?
In recent years, the popularity of crowdsourcing in business literature and social media has skyrocketed. Unfortunately, along the way, the definition of crowdsourcing has lost its original meaning (see the previous post for more discussion on the definition of crowdsourcing). It became synonymous with just about every event happening online, especially if the event engaged a substantial number of people. Mixing crowdsourcing with online networking is a frequent mistake. That’s why we have oxymorons like “crowdsourcing on Facebook” (or Twitter, or Yelp).
Another frequently recurring mistake is the confusion of crowdsourcing with brainstorming. Although the two techniques share similar features, they’re far from identical.
These are the main differences:
- A question is presented to several people
- As brainstorming sessions progress, people propose their own ideas or capitalize on the ideas of others
- The question may become redefined in the process
Many folks mistakenly believe that if you replace a group of eight to ten participants – reportedly the optimal number of people for brainstorming – with a crowd of dozens or even hundreds, you’re not brainstorming but crowdsourcing.
- Requires independence of opinions, a feature of crowdsourcing highlighted in the classic James Surowiecki book, “The Wisdom of Crowds”
- Members of the crowd – either individuals or small teams – provide input that is not influenced by others
- It’s this aspect of crowdsourcing that results in the delivery of highly diversified, original, and often completely unexpected solutions to the problems at hand
In contrast, brainstorming almost always ends up with the group reaching a consensus. The acquisition of diversified opinion is one of the many benefits of crowdsourcing.
Crowdsourcing – The Need for a Clear Definition
Why is it important to keep a clear border between crowdsourcing and other problem-solving tools, such as brainstorming? Because if we want organizations to start using crowdsourcing in their day-to-day innovation practices, we need to ensure that they know the basic rules of applying the technique.
Take, for example, a 2017 Harvard Business Review article titled “Rethinking Crowdsourcing.” The article presents a review of 87 crowdsourcing projects aimed at generating new consumer product ideas. During each project, managers allowed participants to “like” each other’s submissions, a feature that absolutely doesn’t belong to crowdsourcing.
The result? Some contributors began to “like” each other’s ideas to the extent that the apparent value of their respective contributions became over-inflated. No wonder that when the submitted proposals were assessed by independent evaluators, no correlation was found between the most ‘likeable’ ideas and those that led to successful products.
The conclusion of the article was quite pessimistic: “It can be unwise to rely on the crowd.” Not an encouraging statement for those who want to start exploring what crowdsourcing can do for their organizations!
Crowdsourcing doesn’t need “rethinking.” What is needed is a clear understanding of what it is and how it should be properly used to create value. Those who know “the rules” will succeed in harnessing the proverbial wisdom of crowds. Those who don’t, won’t. It’s this simple.