Since the 2004 publication of James Surowiecki’s highly influential book, The Wisdom of Crowds, the idea that large groups of people can be smarter than a few individuals, no matter how brilliant, has been gradually gaining prominence in academic circles, business communities, and public opinion.
Crowdsourcing is one of the most popular applications of this idea. Numerous organizations –including corporations, governmental agencies, and nonprofits – have adopted crowdsourcing as an innovation tool to help them address their most pressing business challenges.
However, the practical adoption of crowdsourcing has been far from seamless. Why? Firstly, there is widespread, often completely paralyzing, uncertainty over which business challenges can (or can’t) be solved by crowdsourcing. Secondly, many organizations – especially those new to crowdsourcing – have difficulty “matching” their specific problems to the crowdsourcing platform which is most suitable for solving them.
As a result, crowdsourcing is often used in a suboptimal way, and when the outcome proves disappointing, it is crowdsourcing itself that gets the blame for being ineffective. Periodic calls to “rethink” crowdsourcing regularly appear on the pages of the most respectful business publications.
There is no need to “rethink” crowdsourcing fundamentally. However, there is a need to create a clear understanding of what crowdsourcing is, and how it can be used to create value. Equally important, we need to clarify which crowdsourcing platforms and applications are available in the marketplace and how to apply them to specific crowdsourcing projects.
What Is Crowdsourcing: The Fundamentals
Let’s start with defining what crowdsourcing is. This will help us make a clear distinction between crowdsourcing and other knowledge-management tools – such as brainstorming, with which crowdsourcing is regularly confused.
The term “crowdsourcing” was first coined by journalist Jeff Howe in 2006. Howe also provided the original – and, arguably, still the most precise and comprehensive – definition of crowdsourcing, describing it as “the act of taking a job traditionally performed by a designated agent (usually an employee) and outsourcing it to an undefined, generally large group of people in the form of an open call.”
What is very important in this definition is that crowdsourcing is not just about a crowd; first and foremost, it’s about outsourcing a job, a point that is often forgotten in our conversations about crowdsourcing. Simply speaking, crowdsourcing is outsourcing a job to a crowd of external contributors. Or, to rewrite this statement as a simple formula:
Crowdsourcing = a job + a crowd.
Crowdsourcing: Two Approaches, Two Objectives
Now that we’ve answered the question “what is crowdsourcing”, we now need to address how the methodology can be used to solve business challenges. There are a huge variety of different “jobs” organizations can potentially outsource to a crowd of external contributors. However, it’s possible to reduce all crowdsourcing tasks down to fit within two major approaches: adding capacity and accessing expertise.
Both types have characteristic features and follow their own rules of engagement. Understanding the difference between the two is very important because the lack of such understanding frequently results in the failure of crowdsourcing campaigns. It would, therefore, be useful to discuss these two types of crowdsourcing separately.
Amazon’s ‘adding capacity’ crowdsourcing initiatives extend far beyond their ‘Mechanical Turk’ system. Recently, Amazon announced plans to create a next-gen Mars rover using crowdsourced insights to inform the design.The members of the “adding capacity” crowd usually don’t need any special training to perform the job. However, it’s the responsibility of the project sponsor to provide the crowd with clear directions on how each part of the job should be completed. It’s also the sponsor’s responsibility to design a robust protocol for assembling the whole job from its crowdsourced sub-components. Organizations use the adding capacity crowdsourcing approach when the desired job requires an amount of resources that the organization simply doesn’t have. Take, for example, the Common Voice project by Mozilla. Common Voice is a publicly available database that contains around 1,400 hours of recorded human speech from more than 42,000 contributors in 18 different languages. Obviously, Mozilla couldn’t have created such a database using its 1,200 employees alone. In most cases, the larger the crowd that is available for adding capacity crowdsourcing, the better. For example, adding extra contributors to the Common Voice project would have allowed Mozilla to expand the database – both in terms of recorded hours of speech and the number of covered languages. In this respect, adding capacity crowdsourcing is clearly different from its accessing expertise counterpart. A more sophisticated version of adding capacity crowdsourcing, the “flash organization” concept, has been developed to deal with complex, open-ended tasks that can’t be easily broken into smaller identical parts.