What is crowdsourcing?

In recent years, crowdsourcing has become a popular topic in business publications and social media. Yet, its acceptance as a practical problem-solving tool has been slow. Why? Because there is a widespread, often completely paralyzing, uncertainty over what crowdsourcing is and what it can (or can’t) do. As a result, crowdsourcing is often used in the wrong way, and when the outcome proves disappointing, it is crowdsourcing itself that gets the blame for being “ineffective.”

First of all, it’s important to prevent the expansive use of the term “crowdsourcing” and keep a clear distinction between crowdsourcing and other communication and problem-solving tools, such as online networking and brainstorming. Equally important is to provide a clear explanation of what crowdsourcing can do for organizations to achieve their strategic innovation objectives.

Let me start with a definition of crowdsourcing – the original proposed by Jeff Howe in 2006 – which I still consider the most comprehensive and precise. Howe defined crowdsourcing as “the act of taking a job traditionally performed by a designated agent (usually an employee) and outsourcing it to an undefined, generally large group of people in the form of an open call.”

What is very important in this definition is that crowdsourcing is not just about a crowd; it’s about outsourcing a job, a point that is often lost in our conversations about crowdsourcing.

I believe that there are two major types of “jobs” organizations can outsource using crowdsourcing: adding capacity and accessing expertise.

I define adding capacity as the process of splitting a large job into small, usually identical, pieces and then asking a crowd of contributors to perform the whole job by delivering smaller components. Another term for adding capacity is “microtasking,” with Mechanical Turk being the most prominent microtasking marketplace.

Organizations would use adding capacity crowdsourcing when the completion of a job requires the amount of human resources organizations can’t provide on their own. This type of crowdsourcing usually doesn’t require any substantial training of the crowd. However, organizations must provide the members of the crowd with clear directions on how to precisely accomplish the required “mictrotask.” Organizations also must develop a robust protocol of collecting, collating, and interpreting the combined results.

(A more sophisticated version of adding capacity crowdsourcing, a concept of a “flash organization,” has been developed to deal with complex, open-ended tasks that can’t easily be broken into smaller identical parts.)

I define accessing expertise crowdsourcing as a process of exploring the proverbial “wisdom of crowds,” a process of collecting expertise, knowledge, and skills from anywhere outside the organization (or anywhere outside a particular function or unit in an organization if we deal with internal crowdsourcing). In my opinion, there is no established academic term for accessing expertise crowdsourcing, although the term “crowdsourced innovation” comes very close.

Accessing expertise crowdsourcing can be further divided into idea generation and problem-solving, which I proposed calling the “bottom-up” and “top-down” crowdsourcing, respectively (and wrote about benefits and drawbacks of both here and here).

Both major types of crowdsourcing, adding capacity and accessing expertise, follow their own rules of engagement which must not be confused if organizations want to use crowdsourcing effectively and efficiently. I’ll cover these rules in more detail in the upcoming posts.

Images provided by Tatiana Ivanov

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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