Crowdsourcing: two approaches, two objectives

In my previous post, I reminded the original definition of crowdsourcing by Jeff Howe: “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.” I emphasized that crowdsourcing is not just about a crowd; it’s about outsourcing a job, a point that is often lost.

I further outlined two major jobs that can be outsourced via crowdsourcing, adding capacity and accessing expertise, and gave definitions of both. Some of the readers have asked me to elaborate on the difference between the two approaches to crowdsourcing. Here is what I came up with.

I define adding capacity as the process of splitting a large job into small, usually identical, pieces and then asking the crowd to deliver these small pieces. The members of the crowd usually don’t need any special training to perform the job. However, it’s the responsibility of the project sponsor to provide the crowd with a clear direction on how each piece of the job should be completed. It’s also the sponsor’s responsibility to design a protocol for assembling the whole job from its sub-components.

Organizations use the adding capacity crowdsourcing when the desired job requires the amount of resources organizations don’t have. Take, for example, the Common Voice project by Mozilla. Common Voice is a dataset that consists of about 1,400 hours of recorded human voice samples from more than 42,000 contributors in 18 different languages. Obviously, Mozilla couldn’t have composed such a dataset using only its own 1,200 employees.

The very objective of the adding capacity crowdsourcing poses a requirement with regards to the size of the crowd. In most cases, the larger crowd for adding capacity, the better. For example, adding additional contributors to the Common Voice project would have allowed Mozilla to expand the dataset, both in terms of recorded hours of speech and the number of covered languages.

I define accessing expertise as the extraction of the proverbial “wisdom of crowds,” a process of collecting expertise, knowledge, experience, and skills originating anywhere outside an organization. (In case of internal crowdsourcing, the accessed expertise will originate anywhere within the organization, but outside the unit that is sponsoring the crowdsourcing project.)

Organizations use the accessing expertise crowdsourcing when they want to solve a problem, the problem that prevents the organization from achieving an important objective like designing a new product, completing a project, or optimizing performance. When launching an accessing expertise crowdsourcing campaign, the campaign sponsor must clearly define the problem and explicitly outline the requirements all successful solutions are expected to meet.

The members of the crowd should possess certain knowledge, expertise, and skills to be able to solve the problem – and the more complex the problem, the more experienced the members of the crowd should be.

Moreover, many complex technical and business problems require completely novel, unexpected, and even unorthodox solutions – meaning that the pool of incoming contributions should include many different ways of solving the problem. This objective of the accessing expertise crowdsourcing poses a specific, unique for this approach, requirement for the crowd: it must be very diverse to provide the needed diversity of the incoming solutions. On the other hand, the crowd size by itself is, perhaps, a secondary consideration for accessing expertise crowdsourcing but larger crowds are usually more diverse.

Understanding the difference between the two approaches to crowdsourcing – and the rules they are governed by – is very important because the lack of such understanding is a frequent cause of failure of crowdsourcing campaigns.

 Image provided by Tatiana Ivanov

About Eugene Ivanov

Eugene Ivanov is the Founder of (WoC)2, an innovation consultancy that helps organizations extract maximum value from the wisdom of crowds by coordinated use of internal and external crowdsourcing.
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