Is crowdsourcing pitting “experts” against “amateurs”?

Two Men Engaged in an Argument_ One Manifesting Anger the Other Trying to Calm Him Down

In my previous post, I argued 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, meaning that many organizations struggle with identifying problems that can be successfully solved by crowdsourcing. There is another reason slowing down the acceptance of crowdsourcing: the lack of trust in the intellectual power of a crowd, its ability to tackle complex technological or business problems. Sure, everyone would agree that the wisdom of crowds can be successfully applied to accomplishing “simple” tasks, such as reporting potholes in the City of Boston, but when it comes to answering a question requiring special knowledge…well, let ask the experts.

The reluctance to replace experts with a crowd naturally sits well with the experts themselves, who’re often scornful of the very idea that someone with no immediate experience in their field can solve a problem that they couldn’t. This sentiment was nicely expressed by James Euchner who, with a tangible dose of bitterness and disdain, wrote back in 2010: “Our trust in the expert appears to be increasingly supplanted by a willingness to rely on the knowledge derived from crowds of amateurs. In this new world, the motives and competence of experts are at best suspect and presumed to be inferior to the wisdom of crowds.”

“Crowds of amateurs.” Pretty harsh words, eh?

The fundamental flaw of the notion that people participating in crowdsourcing campaigns are just a bunch of “amateurs” lies in the fact that in real life, crowds are composed of…experts. They simply are not experts working for your company, or in your industry, or in your country–or having your immediate area of expertise. But they’re experts nonetheless. Take, for example, InnoCentive, a commercially available crowdsourcing platform with a solid track record of solving difficult scientific and business problems for corporate and non-profit clients. The InnoCentive proprietary crowd is composed of 375,000+ solvers, with 66% of them holding advanced degrees. Moreover, academic research shows that a solver’s likelihood of solving a problem increases with the distance between the solver’s own field of technical expertise and the problem’s domain. So much for a crowd of “amateurs”!

Some experts, of course, are not outright dismissive of crowdsourcing; they’re trying to justify their negative attitude toward the technique. A recent example of this attitude was on display in a recent Boston Globe article written by Dr. Joshua Liao, a resident physician in the Department of Medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and a clinical fellow in medicine at Harvard Medical School. Dr. Liao was approached by a gentleman, a son of a Dr. Liao’s patient, who asked him whether Dr. Liao would be willing to use CrowdMed to help establishing diagnosis for the patient’s mother.  CrowdMed is a recently launched company using crowdsourcing to provide online medical diagnosis, particularly diagnosis of rare conditions that have been missed by doctors.

Dr. Liao, response was no. He explained that a solid diagnosis requires not only patient’s medical history, which supposedly can be provided to a crowd, but, more importantly, direct medical examination of the patient, which can be not. For this reason, in his opinion, services like CrowdMed “produce more questions than answers, and more confusion than direction.”

I see Dr. Liao’s point, for I do understand the value of a close, in-person, medical examination. What troubles me in his argument is that the CrowdMed website features at least a dozen of “patient success stories”, the testimonies by the people who were apparently helped by the crowd after their own doctors failed to do so. What are then these “success stories”? Are they fake? Are they fluke? Or are they the examples that in some cases, in spite of what Dr. Liao says, crowdsourcing can really deliver something that a single expert, however accomplished and experienced, can’t? Would it not be better if medical professionals stopped dismissing new approaches as “confusing” and started instead a serious discussion on what crowdsourcing can (or can’t) do in the healthcare practice?

(By the way, I could easily find another online service, Sherpaa, that provides its subscribers, among other things, with medical diagnoses).

The irony of the pitting experts against crowds is that crowdsourcing is impossible without experts. It’s only experts who can identify and properly formulate your company’s most important problems; it’s only experts who can go through incoming external submissions to select those that make sense; it’s only experts who can integrate the external information with what is already available in-house.

So, the next time your organization has a pressing problem, ask your internal experts first, and if they can’t come with a suitable solution right away, launch a crowdsourcing campaign. Use the wisdom of the experts who don’t work for you.

Image credit: John Collier “Two Men Engaged in an Argument” (http://www.paintinghere.com/buy/john_collier_two_men_engaged_in_an_argument_one_manifesting_anger_the_other_trying_to_calm_him_down_art_painting_27641.html)

About Eugene Ivanov

Eugene Ivanov is a PMI-certified Innovation Management Consultant who helps organizations increase the efficiency of their internal and external innovation programs.
This entry was posted in Crowdsourcing and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Is crowdsourcing pitting “experts” against “amateurs”?

  1. Miroslav Madaric says:

    Important topic and excellent review! I discussed also this locally here in Croatia. There is one nice saying: “Professionals built Titanic, amateur built Ark!”. This is one o important dilemmas, among dozens of others, in the innovation field. Related to advantage and barriers produced by knowledge, the term “unlearn” is important. As in many other innovation dilemmas – balance is the key!

  2. Pingback: Why does your doctor hate crowdsourcing? |

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