I think that one of the reasons crowdsourcing hasn’t yet become a mainstream innovation tool is the uncertainty over what crowdsourcing can (or can’t) do. I’m often asked the same question: can crowdsourcing solve this problem; what about that problem? My answer to these questions is always the same: yes, it can. Although sounding almost like a joke, the answer reflects my strong belief that crowdsourcing is first and foremost a question, a question that you pose to a large crowd of people. It doesn’t really matter what this question is about, for as long as it is well-thought-out, properly defined and clearly articulated.
For example, can crowdsourcing fix marriage problems? Imagine a married couple with their relationship in disarray. If both spouses are serious about fixing it, they will most likely approach a marriage counselor. The counselor will ask the couple a lot of questions and, based on their responses, emotional state and body language–and also on his or her own professional knowledge and experience–will suggest some measures to improve the situation.
How much can the couple trust the opinion of one single individual, however supposedly experienced? What if this particular counselor has gotten it completely wrong? Can the couple ask for a “second opinion,” like it happens in case of a life-threatening medical condition? Well, marriage counseling isn’t cheap: a 45-min session may cost the couple around $200–and, obviously, you won’t solve your problems in one single session. Besides, whereas most health insurance plans will pay for at least part of the cost of a second opinion (and Medicare will pay 80% of it), no one but the couple itself will have to pay for their counseling, first opinion or second.
Now, let’s imagine that the very same couple brings its troubles to a crowdsourcing platform. It will present to the crowd pretty much all the information it would divulge to the counselor and it’ll be ready to answer additional questions the crowd may ask. And then the crowd begins delivering opinions of its members–all based on the real-life experience of dozens, if not hundreds, of different individuals, many of whom might have gone (successfully or not) through exactly the same situation as our troubled couple. After all, isn’t this what professional marriage counselors do: giving opinions based on their prior experience of listening to dozens, if not hundreds, of troubled married couples?
Of course, the process of crowdsourcing solutions to marriage problems won’t be exactly free to the users; however, available methodologies of running crowdsourcing platforms would keep the price at a fraction of what the counseling would cost.
There is one potential problem to this scenario. Will the couple be willing to provide all the information the crowd requires it to divulge? It’s one thing to disclose very intimate–and often embarrassing details–of your personal life to a certified professional who, in addition, is strictly bound by a confidentiality agreement. It’s another to tell the same to a crowd of strangers, some of whom may appear unsympathetic or even openly hostile.
Part of these concerns can be adequately addressed by, first, protecting the anonymity of the couple itself (although some potentially identifying information, such as age, location, occupation, etc. is impossible to withdraw) and, second, by appropriate moderation of the online conversation. Besides, the idea of revealing your marriage problems to a stranger–instead of a person in flesh across the desk–may be quite appealing to some. This seems to be a rationale behind BetterHelp, an online mental health counseling service. The site boasts having onboard over 2,000 counselors who have worked “with over 200,000 people through more than two million sessions.” As typical for online services, counseling with BetterHelp is based on a flat membership fee that covers both the use of the platform and unlimited counseling; membership plans start as low as $35/week.
Back to corporate crowdsourcing. Companies often display the same emotion as our troubled married couple going online: the fear of revealing sensitive (in this case, proprietary) information to a crowd of “strangers.” That’s the reason why among the most difficult crowdsourcing campaigns to run–and the least successful in the final outcome–are those dealing with “internal” processes. Companies are just intrinsically hesitant to provide the crowd with relevant details about the nature of the problem and the signs (or, better, the origin) of the troubles. Yes, we understand that this particular process is inefficient and too costly; yes, we realize that we must improve it and, for this reason, are ready to ask for a help from outside; but no, we’re not going to tell you what this process is all about: it’s proprietary. So when I say that crowdsourcing is first and foremost a question, I ought to add: and also your willingness to provide as much information as needed (no more, but no less) to ensure that this question is solvable by a crowd.
I have to say that the fear of revealing proprietary corporate information through crowdsourcing is vastly overblown. Available techniques allow you to prepare your online question in a way that will make it “solvable”, yet leaving aside any information pointing to the source of the question. I’ll touch upon this topic in my following posts.