Best-selling author and globally recognised futurist Ross Dawson discusses the development of crowdsourcing - and the tools you need to tap this valuable resource.
After gaining steady attention in the business press over the past four years or so, crowdsourcing found itself catapulted onto frontpage news in May when the UK’s new Coalition government turned to the online community for ideas about its future programme for government. A term popularised by Jeff Howe in a 2006 Wired magazine article and subsequent book, crowdsourcing has of course been the subject of some interest for some time, particularly in light of successful initiatives from the likes of Dell and Boeing.
But suddenly crowdsourcing seems to be reaching some kind of critical mass. From reports that Microsoft crowdsourced the making of Office 2010
, to David Cameron asking the UK’s civil servants for money-saving ideas via the Government’s Spending Challenge
, it’s not just that interest in it is peaking, it’s that organisations are already bringing crowdsourcing plans to fruition.
This all comes as no surprise to Ross Dawson
, a globally recognised futurist, strategy advisor and best-selling author – and at last month’s Creative Sydney event he delivered a keynote entitled ‘The Future is Crowdsourcing’.
"We are now at the opening phases of what is a global talent economy," he explains. "Talent is now everywhere and far more available. We’re seeing professionals increasingly working independently rather than necessarily in large corporations; we are seeing retired people who are interesting in continuing to be engaged and entrusted to projects. And clearly we have access to people around the world. So we are moving from a world where the talent was all inside big organisations to a very fluid world where the talent is available globally. And there is now a whole host of tools and platforms to be able to access all of this talent in a wide variety of ways."
One of the first businesses to acknowledge the potential of crowdsourcing was Procter & Gamble, with CEO Alan Lafley announcing in 2000 that he wanted more than half of the company’s innovation to come from outside of the organisation – a remarkable challenge given that this is an organisation with $80bn of revenue and 7,000 researchers, but one that has been achieved via a variety of crowdsourcing mechanisms including technology brokers who actively go out and look for ideas.
IBM has put similar emphasis on crowdsourcing, despite being home to 3,000 researchers and six Nobel Prize winners. Its alphaWorks
initiative, for instance, is used as an alternative to beta testing, instead releasing products while they are still in development to a close community of customers who can play with them and provide feedback, involving them in the innovation process. Dell’s IdeaStorm
is another well-documented success, enabling customers to have input into the innovation process.
And if it is a crowdsourcing platform that brings customers into the process, it can also deliver additional benefits. "In one sense it means that real customer desires can be expressed in ways that could not be before. Any number of emails, telephone calls or letters asking for something would never result in anything. But if you have the tools to actually get a clear idea of what your customers want and you can tap that, it can be a far more effective way of responding to customer needs," says Dawson.
"Evidence has proved that, for instance, Dell does take into account the ideas that are submitted and floats them to the top. A classic was where it released a Linux-based laptop through the weight of demand from IdeaStorm. If organisations use these tools well, they are absolutely far closer to their customers than they ever could have been before these tools existed. They are able to really meet the needs of those customers which can be clearly expressed and understood and responded to."
So what are the crowdsourcing tools and platforms that your business needs to know about? Here are six of the different types that your firm can tap into, as highlighted by Ross Dawson.
1. Distributed innovation platforms
Platforms to support innovation processes that cross organisational boundaries (or take place entirely outside an organisation), some notable resources include Innovation Exchange
, which allows organisations to present innovation challenges to a community of innovators; ideaken
, which enterprise innovation seekers to collaborate with the global pool of talent, research vendors, academia, employees and co-create with customers; crowdsourcing expert Chaordix
; and open innovation service provider Nine Sigma
Eli Lilly, meanwhile, founded Innocentive
. "Essentially they understand that within the overall innovation process there are a number of steps and they are not necessarily the best source to do all of it," explains Dawson. "They can go out and tap a whole world of people that have already come across these issues. They find more than half the people that solve the challenges on innocenteive and these other distributed innovation platforms already know the answer. So why should they solve that problem again when they can find someone else who already knows the answer?"
2. Idea platforms
"An idea platform is usually used within a company context to be able to gather and filter and source ideas that are proposed," says Dawson. "So these sometimes go under the guise of idea management software, but these are ones where people inside organisations – often – submit ideas or proposals for cost savings, or new products, or new services, or process efficiencies, and then they collectively assess and rate and vote on and select and evolve and refine and build on those ideas to become the innovation that will drive that organisation forward." In some cases these are also used in an external context, such as the Cisco I-Prize, which uses the idea platform Spigit
in order to create an external community to be able to bring the right ideas together. Other examples of idea platforms include innovation management web app IdeaScale
3. Innovation prizes
Innovation prizes are challenges designed to catalyse new thinking and ingenuity, such as Electrolux's Design Lab
and the DARPA Urban Challenge
. "The Cisco I-Prize
is a competition where Cisco is searching for the next billion dollar business," explains Dawson. "Anybody anywhere can enter their own projects and ideas, others can vote on them and build on them and use the wisdom of the crowd to make them more effective, and from all of those submissions somebody wins a quarter of a million dollar prize."
4. Content markets
One of the classic ways that people view crowdsourcing, content markets are platforms where people submit their content for people to purchase. Threadless
, for instance, allows people to submit designs for t-shirts, with the community voting for the best ones to be made into actual t-shirts which can be ordered. Similarly to this is Red Bubble
, an online art community which is a marketplace for designers who submit their work, for people to vote on it, assess it, make it their favourite and then buy that design in the shape of mugs, postcards, posters, etc.
5. Prediction markets
Prediction markets bring together many opinions to predict the future, often based on "stockmarket-type" mechanisms, which provide a value of a particular prediction that you can buy or sell to make points or potentially money as a result of it going the way you correctly predict. One of the longstanding corporate users of this is Oracle. "For enterprise software companies it is notoriously difficult to forecast sales," explains Dawson. "For many reasons, the sales pipeline that is put into CRM systems is often inaccurate. However, if you then ask the salespeople to predict what the sales are going to be for that quarter and you aggregate all of their opinions, you can get a far more accurate view of what the actual sales are going to be."
Google is another user of prediction markets, using its employees to predict which of its innovations and new projects are most likely to be successful. "These are tools that actually aggregate many opinions through the classic ‘wisdom of the crowd’ in order to make more effective corporate decisions," adds Dawson. Useful tools in this area include the business intelligence solutions of Crowdcast
, which aggregate the knowledge of participants, and enterprise prediction market software by the likes of Consensus Point
, with its Foresight platform.
6. Competition platforms
If you’re looking for a expertise in a specific area then there are an increasing number of competition platforms that are emerging. For instance, if you are in need of design work there are a number of graphic design competition sites that can help your organisation, such as DesignCrowd
and Guerra Creativa
. Elsewhere, TopCoder
provides online computer programming competitions, while Squad Help
is an online community of experts who can help with the likes of domain name ideas, company names and viral marketing.