Crowdsourcing expertise from “generalists”

Recently, I came across an interesting article—and it was its title, “Why Experts Have Killed Innovation,” that attracted my attention. The author, Joshua Krook, a doctoral candidate in law at University of Adelaide, points out to the rising specialization of the global workforce and claims that education and training focused on increasingly narrow skills, for increasingly narrowly-defined positions, has a “dampening effect on innovative thought and creativity.” While truly innovative ideas tend to come from generalists operating at the intersections of various disciplines, argues Krook, we keep churning out specialized experts.

There is one more, equally damaging, effect of specialization on innovation: the time it takes. More and more professional positions associated with “innovation” now require applicants to have an advanced degree: MS or even PhD. As a result, instead of producing inventions in their twenties and thirties—arguably the most productive years for creative activities—young people spend this time on acquiring degrees that would only allow them to get hired for “creative” jobs. No surprise that the average age of Nobel Prize winners keeps steadily increasing (by 5-6 years per century).

Krook offers what he calls a “simple” solution to the specialization problem: companies should stop hiring experts in a particular filed and start hiring generalists (“capable of thinking outside the box,” as he puts it). Companies would also benefits from hiring independent outside innovators that had escaped the pressure of specialization.

As much I like the way Krook defines the problem, I’m very skeptical of his “simple” solution. The hiring process in most organizations, as formal and antiquated as it is, is intrinsically incapable of identifying qualified “generalists” (even if HR staffers would succeed in defining what “generalist” means for this particular organization).

And yet, there is a proven solution to the problem of workforce specialization: crowdsourcing. First, crowdsourcing allows an organization to temporally “hire” people who’re external to it and therefore unencumbered by the organization’s narrowly defined expertise. Second, launching a crowdsourcing campaign—using an appropriate venue—absolves the organization from the very need to actively look for qualified people (whether “experts” or “generalists”): qualified individuals will self-select and appraoch the organization with their solutions. Third, academic research on crowdsourcing shows that the likelihood of someone solving a problem increases with the distance between this person’s own field of technical expertise and the problem’s domain. This suggests that a properly designed crowdsourcing campaign may result in a breakthrough invention emerging from the interplay of different scientific and/or technological fields.

Crowdsourcing is not the only way to enrich the internal expertise with diversity originating from external crowds. Recently, a concept of crowdraising has been proposed by CrowdRaising.co, a NYC-based startup. (Full disclosure: I’m a member of the CrowdRaising.co Advisory Board.) Crowdraising allows crowds to pledge time instead of money to support causes they like. Any organization running an innovation project can now hire a crowd to perform business-related activities. These activities could be as simple as taking part in a survey or beta testing, or they could involve more complex tasks, such as coding, design work or strategic advice.

Taken together, crowdsourcing and crowdraising may create a new paradigm of finding and utilizing employees in the gig economy. But at the very minimum, they can help companies avoid a trap of “hyper-specialization.”

p.s. You can read the second issue of my monthly newsletter on crowdsourcing here: http://mailchi.mp/b3e5728661b4/yes-to-science-no-to-betting. To subscribe to the newsletter, go to http://eepurl.com/cE40az.

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.
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