Wednesday, May 18, 2011

You are the Power of Crowdsourcing

Nick Hamm
Guest Blogger: Nick Hamm

Continuing our guest blogger series, we just can't help but "crowdsource" this excellent post from Nick Hamm over to the CloudSpokes blog.  Nick addresses what crowdsourcing is, and how to do it right.

Nick is the former chief tech guy for Infowelders and now a solutions architect for Appirio.  He's also a vocal proponent for CloudSpokes on twitter.

Crowdsourcing is by no means a new concept.  It has been applied, both successfully and unsuccessfully, to a wide variety of tasks and applications over the last several centuries.  Yet there still remain naysayers who claim that the crowd is dumb and that you can't get quality results from unwashed masses of people.  I hope to dispell some of the myths and FUD around crowdsourcing by talking about how it can be harnessed for the beneift of both the sourcer and the sourced.

The term "crowdsourcing" is fairly new, comprised of the combination of "crowd" and "outsourcing".  Its practice has taken many forms and structures, some of which have better outcomes than others.  Before delving into the use of crowdsourcing, it's important to distinguish what I see as two primary uses - generally unskilled bulk tasks that can be tackled collaboratively by masses of people with little direction, and finite technical tasks that require specialized skills.  These are not the only two uses; there are many other uses for crowdsourcing as well that you may not realize you already use.  Ever ask a question on Twitter, Quora, or a public message board to help solve a problem?  That's crowdsourcing.  Ever contributed to an open source software project?  That's crowdsourcing, too.  For the purposes of this post, I'll focus primarily on finite technical tasks requiring specialized skills.  Why?  Because this is where I see the most promise and potential for harnessing the power of crowd intellect to solve problems.

If you follow me on Twitter, you have no doubt seen many tweets regarding CloudSpokes, a community of cloud developers who compete in sponsored development competitions for money, badges, and bragging rights.  Almost every competition hosted here has had at least one, if not multiple, submissions that met or exceeded all of the requirements.  Based on crowdsourcing naysayers, you would not expect this to be the case.  If the crowd is dumb, Cloudspokes would be getting a bunch of junk code and in the end would not be solving any of the problems they set out to solve.  Why is this not the case?  There are several reasons:
  • If you expect quality results, it is critical to give quality guidance and instructions.  This is true of any task, and working with the crowd, or any other outsourced workforce for that matter, increases the need for clarity in direction.
  • Make the pay-off equivalent to the commonality of the skill sets needed to produce the output.  If you are offering $500 for an integrated mobile application that uses 3 different APIs and needs to work on multiple platforms, you're not targeting the right segment of the crowd.  It's unlikely that a large portion of your crowd will have the experience needed to pull off something that complex, and the ones that do aren't going to do it for $500.
  • The crowd is made up of individuals with a diverse set of experiences and skills - play to those strengths.  The power of the crowd in this example really lies in the skills of each individual, not the collective skills of everyone combined.  There is no implied collaboration between contestants, so the results are as diverse as the people competing.  This means that your results will be as good as your BEST contestant, not as bad as your worst contestant.  This is a common misconception of crowdsourcing, and one that lies mainly in the control of the crowdsourcer.
  • Foster your crowd and they will accomplish great things for you.  The gamification of crowdsourcing is another way to keep your crowd engaged, retain quality community members, and bring new members into the community to make them feel connected.  Using the crowd as an unidentified workforce is a recipe for trouble.  While the crowd members are not your employees per se, you must treat them with respect and reverence.  After all, they are performing services for you that are hopefully adding value to your business.
The wisdom of individuals is not normalized with this model - in fact it is amplified to let the cream of the crop rise to the top.  Every day we are seeing many new applications of crowdsourcing used to reduce the time and investment needed to deliver discrete solutions.  But in the end, the success of these initiatives depends on the knowledge of the crowdsourcers and you the individual, the true power of crowdsourcing.

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