Is Crowdsourcing Your Key To A More Effective, Engaged Organization?

By Chris Cancialosi

If you’re an entrepreneur with a great idea, or leading a company that’s looking for ways to innovate, there may be no better way to gather feedback, acquire funding quickly, or evolve your good idea into the next big thing than by crowdsourcing.

Wired Magazine editors Jeff Howe and Mark Robinson first coined the term “crowdsourcing” in 2005. In 2006, Howe wrote an article that defined crowdsourcing as, “the act of a company or institution taking a function once performed by employees and outsourcing it to an undefined (and generally large) network of people in the form of an open call. This can take the form of peer-production (when the job is performed collaboratively), but is also often undertaken by sole individuals. The crucial prerequisite is the use of the open call format and the large network of potential laborers.”

Since then, the concept and its applications have been rapidly evolving into many different forms, from the collective sourcing of information and ideas (think Wikipedia) to the collective sourcing of investment capital for entrepreneurs (think Kickstarter).

A growing number of organizations, from Dell to NASA, are using crowdsourcing methods to leverage the input of the collective to accomplish real business, scientific, and social outcomes.

Take Quirky for example. This New York-based design firm allows community members to contribute to invention ideas (or submit the ideas themselves) for a partial stake in the upside if and when the product goes to market. By allowing designers, marketers, inventors and plain old folks who just happen to have a brilliant idea to come together, Quirky provides a way to crowdsource inventions like the Aros, a smart air conditioner originally conjured up by Garthen Leslie.

Through the Quirky platform, Leslie was able to get input from over 1,400 other contributors to help get the Aros from bright idea to the hands of consumers.

Larger corporations are also seeing benefits. General Mills, for example, is crowdsourcing innovative ideas around everything from packaging and product ideas to suggestions about new technology.

The Potential For Crowdsourcing Organizational Development

While many companies like these are beginning to scratch the surface of crowdsourcing as a beneficial mechanism for business purposes, there are many yet untapped benefits to using such a model for organizational development.

By expanding the number of people who can add to the collective insight on a topic, organizations are now able to harness a much broader spectrum of potential ideas, risks, and considerations. The scale of the crowd and their individual skills, experiences and knowledge (oftentimes not directly related to the topic at hand) can help uncover potential solutions that are more unique and helpful than a group of “experts” might ever imagine on their own. Engagement comes naturally through crowdsourcing; helping stakeholders actively contribute and share ideas and input around causes they care about.

The opportunity to use crowdsourcing for other business related efforts, like market research and R&D, also introduces new ways of approaching business processes. We now have the ability to bypass the small group of experts or focus groups to obtain massive amounts of feedback quickly.

With the rapid evolution of technology today, crowdsourcing can be effective on a global scale. The more recent global adoption of mobile technology in particular is opening even more doors to what might be possible.

What Are The Downsides?

Crowdsourcing is certainly not without its critics.

Karim Lakhani’s 2013 article in Harvard Business Review, for example, outlines several key potential challenges to crowdsourcing. Some of these challenges include:

  1. Organizing the information and input
  2. Fighting the belief that opening up will somehow be detrimental to your business
  3. A bias toward tech savvy employees and customers
  4. The quality of ideas may come into question

Jacob Silverman’s piece in The Baffler paints a much darker picture, positioning crowdsourcing as a dystopian concept implemented by large companies that seek to undervalue work contributions by breaking tasks into smaller and smaller parts. Thus making them accomplishable by less skilled or temporary workers (for less and less pay).

While these examples bring up some interesting points and real considerations, I personally think the benefits outweigh the potential drawbacks.

If companies are opening their kimonos and asking for input from their stakeholders on an opt-in basis, they aren’t taking advantage of anyone. If people don’t want to participate, they don’t have to.

Furthermore, by asking for input, organizations are essentially saying, “Hey, we don’t have all the answers. Help us serve you better.” In a world where employees are asking for more input and ownership, crowdsourcing is an ideal platform for promoting engagement.

If companies incentivize participation with some form of rewards and/or recognition for quality ideas, what’s the harm? Participants that choose to opt in are getting something in return for their decision to contribute.

Will Crowdsourcing Work For Your Organization?

As technology advances and the collaborative economy becomes more integrated into the economic landscape, those who fear this type of behavior will come to see that although it may be different that what they’re used to, crowdsourcing can open new worlds of opportunity for those who want to step up and contribute.

Those who desire to have a voice in the causes and organizations they believe in — who have the courage to stand up and make their opinions heard — will likely see that there are others amongst us who are just as willing to help them evolve and perfect their ideas for maximum benefit.

Leaders in today’s organizations, from private corporations, to tech startups, to your local school board, can all benefit from the potential power of the collective.

In an era where many organizations grapple with engagement, satisfaction, turnover, and a lack of effective communication, the potential benefits of crowdsourcing seem worth exploring as a mechanism for keeping your employees and stakeholders informed and engaged on an ongoing basis.

And, even if the idea seems inapplicable today, future generations will grow up having ever more exposure to crowdsourcing opportunities. It may not be a question of whether or not your business should be considering it, but rather, will you be left behind in an era where people expect you to give them opportunities to actively engage with your brand?

This article originally appeared on Forbes

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