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Crowdsourcing 101: Episode 3 – So You Think You Can Crowdsource?

This is Part 3 of my 4 part Crowdsourcing series. Check out Part 1 and Part 2 if you missed them.

I wonder how this genetic gold rush effects the search for infectious agents? After all, we now know that whatever genetic predisposition there is towards ulcers it’s the Helicobactor pilori that accounts for the vast bulk of the cases. Also, it’s becoming clear that bacterial infections in the walls of blood vessels plays a roll in arteriosclerosis and infarcs. Schizophrenia seems to have an infectious component as well. With everyone tumbling into the genetic gold mine how much science is going to be done searching out infectious diseases?

– From a comment posted on by arpad

I began the last article with a rant about the quality of comments posted to YouTube (as an example of why it’s understandable to fear the crowds).  As evidenced above, the crowd can respond wisely.  And comments on sites such as can produce more astute feedback, than say YouTube.  (Note, I’m biased here, I can’t love Wired more than I already do – were it a guy, I would blush and wave at him, as I do firemen.)

The attention span component certainly plays a large role in the quality of comments: YouTube viewers are looking for a quick fix (I watch it too, so I’m not judging), while Wired readers often aim to delve deeper into the pot and hence stick around long enough to make often well-articulated, well-thought-out comments.  This can sometimes be true as well for the level of participants in crowdsourcing projects, especially when their motivations are primarily based in passion.

And, in a subtle way, we all tap into the wisdom of crowds every time we search for information on the web – initially by using a search engine (Google "which organizes websites based on how they link to each other" or Wikipedia founders’ Wikiasari) and then when we, among other things, assess the poster’s/site’s reliablity. 
Wondering how to insert a Windows Media player into your blog? (I was) – well the information is out there, posted by someone who knows more about the subject than you (OK, me).  And, just like the companies who employ crowdsourcing, we must filter the information (in our case, choices) to find the best answer (e.g. this site explains it all clearly and is clean and organized:  I think I’ll trust it, rather than one that looks like Geocities circa 1998).   

Only a select few of the comments on, in fact, make it into the actual magazine.  Filtering is critical and not everyone’s contribution is focused, relevant or equal.

    properly, [Crowdsourcing] can generate new ideas, shorten research and
    development time, cut development costs, and create a direct, emotional
    connection with customers."
    In fact, when appropriately integrated, Crowdsourcing "can be a great way to access new ideas, find solutions to problems or quickly build out that impossible task".
    You can use Crowdsourcing to encourage feedback, get others to vet and
    weigh ideas, have problems addressed and solved early in the process,
    help market and promote your product, and even reduce risk by giving customers what they want (e.g. Threadless).

    Of course, it’s not right for every company.  But if you want to make Crowdsourcing work, here are some tips.

    Pick Good Crowds, Ask Good Questions

    It is imperative
    that you are clear on whose input you are soliciting – is it everyone?
    Likely not.  You may only want the feedback of a select few.  "For any crowdsourcing activity, the first step is to pick the right crowd! Equally important, you must ask the right question" and "it’s
    a good idea to focus the discussion around one area and clearly define
    what you’re trying to achieve and what the community is all about

    Many cite InnoCentive as a perfect example of filtering the crowd since it "limit[s]
    audience participation by natural selection. People who join
    InnoCentive Inc.’s "open innovation marketplace", for instance, tend to
    be scientists, engineers, inventors and business experts because
    they’re called upon to respond to highly complex challenges posted by
    organizations, or "seekers."

    There is something to be said
    about how not knowing everything about a company allows people to come
    up with more creative ideas and solutions and be more inclined to (dare
    I say it… yes, I dare) "think outside the box". 

    But some
    claim decision making is near impossible without that understanding and
    that it is imperative that contributors be familiar with the specific
    company/industry/and or task at hand.  "[A]
    microchunk isn’t really just a simple task – it comes with a history.
    Much thought and time and action has been put into whatever it is to
    get it to the current state. An understanding of that history is
    necessary if you are going to move the task forward, even if the work
    itself (the microchunk) only takes a few minutes."

    companies want to assemble the crowds with the most sophisticated
    knowledge about their business problems to maximize the impact of the
    small percentage of idea generators within them


    Watch out for the lowest-common denominator, or an information cascade,
    especially with regards to voting.  Winners of voting can merely be the
    ideas that most people agreed on, not necessarily the best one.  And
    voting itself can easily be influenced by others if results are made
    visible during the process.
    Voting, however, is a nebulous arena since it is a function that the crowds do best (e.g. "American Idol has produced highly successful artists"). "When
    a company like John Fluevog Boots & Shoes asks its fans to submit
    and vote on new shoe designs – that is a model based on the wisdom of
    crowds. The wisdom of the mass is more likely to identify a winner than
    a select few."

    Making Your Site User-Friendly and Ready-to-Wear

    As mentioned in Part 2 of this series,
    one of the reasons these types of crowdsourcing projects fail is the
    platform.  Programming and usability of the site should be a priority
    and should be solid before you get the crowds involved.  You don’t want
    them to arrive, find nothing there or discover that the site is
    difficult to navigate and leave.  We’ve all left a site because it was
    impossible to navigate, or simply boring. Poor site planning or
    construction will be infinitely more destructive when you need the crowd to be completely engaged, stick around and come back often.

    most important piece of advice I can give you about this is to make
    your site/product/software useful even if you only have one user.
    People keep trying to create sites where users can share all this
    stuff, but unless you build a critical mass, the site isn’t very useful

    Inspiring Loyalty

    Anyone contributing their time needs
    to feel that they are getting something in return. Contributors will
    only stick around and continue to participate if this is the case.

    The topic/project needs to inspire passion in its contributors:  Michael Sikorsky of Cambrian House notes that "[CH’s] members care less about money than they do about meaning. Their labor has to hold meaning for them."

    Speaking about crowdsourcing project, Assignment Zero, Jeff Howe observed: "What
    the interviews make clear is that contributors volunteered to tackle
    subjects about which they were passionate and knowledgeable. In this
    they held a considerable advantage over professionals, who often must
    complete interviews with little time (or inclination) for advance

    Further, in order to keep the crowd around, the arrangement has to be transparent and inspire trust "For the community to be truly engaged, it is extremely important for the company to be very transparent."
    You can keep the crowds posted and in the loop in many ways – one
    example would be Cambrian House’s weekly updates and emails (Jasmine
    Antonick, VP of Communications, at a panel discussion).

    Antonick also notes, "people will not work on something if they don’t feel that they are gaining."

    And, be absolutely certain to reward.  If you want to inspire
    loyalty it is imperative that you compensate people who work for you
    (even those in the "webosphere") in one form or another.  Mzinga’s
    Aaron Strout emphasizes that it is about partnering, rather than exploiting.

    And your fairness will reap rewards in kind, because "[b]y
    providing rewards or incentives consistent with the value of the ideas
    being submitted, you can get greater participation from qualified users
    and a higher level of confidence in the quality of the ideas being

    Accept the Loss of Control

    "out there" is not always easy (e.g. I can hear the snide comments
    coming from my friends when I wrote that sentence).  Similarly, when
    you ask for input, you may not always like what you hear.

    isn’t for everyone, so make sure you have the fortitude required to
    make the effort pay off. Humility, a thick skin, and a receptive
    management culture are key prerequisites. Be prepared to see and hear
    some things you might not want to. The people who participate may
    really like your business or your product, but the way they articulate
    it may be very different than what you’d do yourself

    Leadership (without censoring)

    Crowdsourcing is not all that democratic – it can’t be.  "Groups need leaders because they need direction." "…having
    an expert in place as a product manager can provide guard rails to keep
    things on track. The product manager can bring a single, unified vision
    and – this is critical – can communicate back to the community why a
    particular idea is not being used."

    Collaboration in crowdsourcing is possible as long as there is
    essentially a leader or guiding force.  Then people can vote and do
    whatever is required of them within that structure.  Collaborations
    which involve almost complete consensus is very difficult to achieve,
    and when it is, that consensus averages out into a sort of blandness. 

    authentic example of collective intelligence that I am aware of also
    shows how that collective was guided or inspired by well-meaning
    individuals. These people focused the collective and in some cases also
    corrected for some of the common hive mind failure modes
    ." (Jaron Lanier)

    Even when you open your world up to include the crowd, as Charles Leadbeater, author of the upcoming book "We-Think" writes, "It
    rarely works as a free-for-all.  It requires some core norms and rules
    of behavior, but not many. It does require leadership but of a
    particular, open, conversational kind. It thrives on decentralized
    cooperation and people taking responsibility for working together. So
    it needs a leadership that makes the conditions for that possible

    These organizations need organization.  Although "a self-policing community (possibly, with some moderation) can help weed out low-quality input and spam",
    it cannot all be turned over to the masses.  A caveat: monitor and
    moderate gently: "Once you slow communities down they realize they are
    being censured or they’re being interrupted, and their natural momentum
    begins to either slow or dissipate." (quote from an interview with Barry Libert)

    Examples of Successful Crowdsourcing

    The series concludes with "Concluding Thoughts" (Hey, I used up all
    my clever titles in the past two posts…).  (Wanna prove crowdsourcing
    right?  Suggest a better title by contacting me or submitting one below.)


    1. NitinK
      NitinK February 8, 2008

      Wow – this is a fantastic article! A truly comprehensive look at the emerging field of crowdsourcing.

    2. Monica
      Monica February 8, 2008

      Thank you, Nitin! I loved your post on the panel conference.

    3. Liz Moise
      Liz Moise February 29, 2008

      Nitin, thanks again for a comprehensive posting on open innovation.
      Liz Moise
      Marketing Manager

    Comments are closed.