March 25, 2013 by Brand Algorithms
Crowdsourcing is the practice of throwing open a task (creative, problem-solving, financial, community, knowledge-building, project-execution, product development), for completion, to a curated list of individuals and entities outside the group whose direct responsibility the completion of the task is, or to the world at large; with the objectives of executing the task in a shorter time-frame or more efficiently.
Crowdsourcing has been around for long, despite the recent hype surrounding the practice. The earliest documented instance of crowdsourcing took place in the 19TH Century (CE), when work on a new dictionary of the English language (which was later to be named The Oxford English Dictionary) was supplemented through the use of the services of volunteers, and then the general public, in English-speaking geographies, to report quotations for ordinary words.
The rise of the Internet, and the increasing amounts of time individuals spend online, have allowed the practice of crowdsourcing to be adopted more widely, and for smaller and more select tasks; thereby contributing to the recent buzz surrounding the practice. The self-organising capability of the Internet, into digital communes based on interests and credos, and the near-instantaneous flow of information between members, are the prime factors for the greater effectiveness of crowdsourcing in the Internet era.
Examples of crowdsourcing range from the well-known to the obscure, and from tasks as simple as copy-editing to those as complex as protein folding. Wikipedia is a well-known example of crowdsourcing, knowledge-documentation being the task; reCAPTCHA is another example, not explicitly known as a crowdsourced exercise, of a program that aims to digitize books, newspapers, and old radio shows, on the side, while providing authentication that a visitor to a digital property is a human; and Foldit is a freely downloadable game that uses the skills of gamers to solve protein-folding problems.
Not everything connected to crowdsourcing has to do with problem-solving or information-gathering, though. Other activities can range from financial funding for a start-up idea (kickstarter.com), to identifying growth opportunities in companies (with all employees participating, rather than just the C-suite), to uncovering new product ideas or detailing future product roadmap.
India had its share of crowdsourced exercises too. Last year companies such as Parle Agro, Hero Motocorp, and Micrograam, among many others, took the crowdsourcing route for tasks as varied as identifying locations where a snack brand was not available with the local retailer, creating a brand communications video, and connecting philanthropic urban HNIs to talented and entrepreneurial rural individuals, respectively.
The infographic below, from crowdsourcing.org, organizes the various available online crowdsourcing communities and platforms (as on November 2011) into the core functional areas in which crowdsourcing projects are initiated.
Organisations looking to utilise an external community to work on specific business assignments have to ensure that they are well-equipped and fully prepared, before embarking on a crowdsourcing exercise; especially if the external community is not a curated group. There are five domains where the organization will have to carry out its due diligence.
A clear and robust set of processes has to be in place, as a starting point, before embarking on a crowdsourcing initiative. The processes will cover a range of decision points:
Is the proposed project a good fit for a crowdsourcing initiative?
The scope of the crowdsourcing: microtasking, crowdfunding, curated "crowd", etc.
The contours of the crowdsourcing initiative: reward, duration, qualifications, etc.
The execution mechanism for the crowdsourcing initiative
Calendar and content for communications to participants
Tracking progress towards achievement of project objectives
Closing the initiative
Intimating participants about the acceptance or rejection of their contributions
Intimating participants about the final "product" resulting from the crowdsourcing initiative
Programme manager for the crowdsourcing initiative
Crowdsourcing has become more widespread thanks to the Internet, and it is imperative that technology is actively used to set-up, execute, and monitor a crowdsourcing initiative. The use of the technology will be at three levels:
Technology Platform - Utilising specialised crowdsourcing software platforms to manage and monitor the crowdsourcing project.
Infrastructure - Building or leasing computing and networking infrastructure to host the platforms that manage the crowdsourcing initiative.
Security - Defining and implementing bespoke security processes and systems, respectively, to ensure that the crowdsourcing initiative does not result in IT infrastructure break-ins or compromises, the theft of confidential information, or compromises to participants' systems.
Crowdsourcing in some of its manifestations, e.g. microtasking, has run into a barrage of criticism, especially in the USA, of achieving its objectives at less than minimum wages. Organisations need to be careful not to be seen as exploiting a weak labour market or engaging in arbitrage, in case the crowdsourcing model is based on remuneration. In case the model is rewards-based, the reward should not be seen as either miserly or overly generous.
In addition, there is the task of managing the expectations of participants. Some participants may think their contributions invaluable, only to see them rejected. It is imperative that the organisation addresses the participants as though they were virtual employees whenever it frames any communication to the group or to specific individuals within the group.
The organisation will have to ensure that crowdsourcing contributions are sufficiently vetted for copyrighted material, and that all contributions are original. In addition, the organisation will have to make its stand clear, at the beginning itself, about who owns the rights to ideas and content submitted by participants in a crowdsourcing initiative.
Finally, in many cases, a crowdsourcing initiative has a barely visible effect on the team whose responsibility the task, now crowdsourced, originally was. The organisation should communicate to the concerned team that the decision to crowdsource is not a reflection on the capabilities and competence of the team. If the crowdsourcing initiative is to succeed, the involvement and active participation of the original team is a must, with programme management of the initiative being its responsibility.
A thin line separates democracy from ochlocracy (mobocracy): a line delineated by laws and their enforcement. Similarly, a thin line separates crowdsourcing from babblement, and that thin line is drawn using tools from the above operational domains and disciplines of an organisation.