In 1999 professors at the University of California at Berkley launched a program called the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence ([email protected]). It brought together three million Internet-connected home computers that voluntarily ran a free screensaver-like program to analyze massive amounts of radio telescope data that no single computer could crunch. The program did this when the host computer was idle, thereby utilizing latent computing power, sifting through the cosmic noise hunting for patterns that could reveal extra-terrestrial origins.
[email protected] was distributed computing on a massive scale. It was crowdsourced computing to ferret out cosmic company. Today, enterprises are waking up to the power of crowdsourcing, pushing it from the realms of cutting edge technological experiment to the next stage in the evolution of everyday outsourcing.
“Crowdsourcing” is a term originally attributed to Wired editors Jeff Howe and Mark Robinson. They used the term “outsourcing to the crowd” in 2006 to describe a trend of outsourcing work to a large number of people over the Internet and then combined ‘outsourcing’ with ‘crowd’ to create ‘crowdsourcing.’ The creation of the term brought the practice to the notice of businesses. Crowdsourcing can be both online and offline. One of the earliest examples of crowdsourcing is attributed to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), which asked for known words in the English language and their usage. Over 70 years, the OED received 6 million submissions. Crowdsourcing can be summed up as the practice of acquiring services or contributions from communities or groups of people (freelancers, consultants and temporary workers) rather than from employees or vendors.
Crowdsourcing is the proving ground for collaborative technologies, bringing together the power of vast global communities of domain experts, thinkers and creative talent. Today, companies are using crowdsourcing in a variety of unusual ways: from social innovation for computer manufacturing, app development, functional testing for mobile phones to acceleration of the process of protein folding to discover better ways to fight disease.
Crowdsourcing.org says the industry reached roughly US$1.5 billion by the end of 2012. This growth in crowdsourcing is going to continue in 2013, reflecting the vast changes in the way companies identify, leverage and compensate their workforces.
These changes also present a threat to traditional outsourcing models such as offshoring, nearshoring and hybrid models. Many traditional outsourcing/nearshoring contracts could be impacted as businesses refine their crowdsourcing practices, making them reliable and cost effective. But the bigger threat crowdsourcing presents to traditional outsourcing is from the fact that enterprises can pick and choose from an extremely large pool of talent and competencies, ensuring best fit for their tasks and projects.
Reason for the rise in enterprise crowdsourcing
The reasons for the sudden spurt in enterprise crowdsourcing are rooted in seven broad-based factors:
- On demand availability of appropriately qualified, experienced and productive talent at the right price and ability to overcome talent scarcity
- The ability to scale talent at market prices or use of innovative pricing models such as competitive bidding and output-based pricing
- The ability to tap into fresh ideas and innovations
- Elimination of expensive infrastructure and maintenance costs
- Elimination of unbillable talent not core to the enterprise
- Ability to increase business capability
- Faster project delivery
With management placing a great emphasis on collaboration, crowdsourcing is rapidly moving into the mainstream.
There are no hard and fast rules for crowdsourcing talent, tasks and solutions—it is still an evolving practice. However, the key is seeking innovation.
Guidelines for successful crowdsourcing
Break down the task or the requirement: If you can break down the task you want to outsource into smaller microtasks, you get the equivalent of distributed computing done by specialists at each of the microtasks. That leads to increased speed of delivery and improves the quality and accuracy of the output.
Identify the right community: Everyone has a solution, but you must look for the correct community, people and talent pool to outsource your product, solution or service to. While on the task, involve your end-customers who will consume/use the product, solution or service with the group. Bringing together the two crowds can lead to innovation. But more than that, it helps you connect as a business with the communities that you serve and understand their habits and preferences.
Excite the crowd: Get people (crowds) interested in your project, challenge them and develop their interest in looking for solutions that go beyond traditional outsourcing.
Test the crowd: Make sure you run a pilot with the crowd you select before moving on to larger projects. Your comfort in dealing with them is of utmost importance.
Focus on project management: Enterprises need to monitor crowdsourcing closely. You must also keep crowdsouring goal-oriented. Crowds tend to behave differently at different times and they are impacted by subtle market dynamics. Your processes should be able to sense these changes and respond to them.
Security can be tricky: Crowdsourcing could make you vulnerable to security risks; data and IP can be compromised. That’s why you should start with small tasks and learn along the way. If you have a large task to crowdsource, break it down into smaller microtasks.
Prepare for cultural change: Crowdsourcing, especially working with different expert communities spanning several geographies, calls for cultural adjustment. Be prepared to understand the impact of culture on delivery, work methods and reporting.
Have you got the enterprise crowdsourcing strategy right?