If you're aiming to address a problem or produce great work, the more people involved the better. In any given group, the cream will rise to the top: the very best ideas and the greatest answers will inevitably emerge.
That, at least, is the theory behind crowdsourcing. It's the notion that rather than relying upon one person to come up with the solution to a problem, you should put out an open call for help, then wait to find out what the results are.
Crowdsourcing in reality
Crowdsourcing can be applied in many different scenarios. And there's little doubt that in a lot of them, it really works.
One example is open source software. This has been crowdsourced for many years. Because the underlying source code which makes up an open source package is accessible to anybody who really wants to change it, it's surprisingly easy for someone with a good idea and a bit of technical nous to make a difference.
Consider the open source web browser, Firefox. Unlike closed-source packages like Microsoft's Internet Explorer, improvements to Firefox have been completely created, applied and tested by the crowd.
The result? In January this year, Firefox overtook Internet Explorer as Europe's most widely used web browser. Proof of the power of crowdsourcing? Well, potentially - although other factors - like Internet Explorer's recurrent security problems - may also have played their part.
Design by crowdsourcing
Small establishments serious about crowdsourcing might need to find different ways to make it work for them. A clear option is design. Why pay one logo designer to make a logo for your company, if you could crowdsource designs from 100s of designers on a website like 99Designs?
Here's how it works: you submit a brief for anything you want designed. Then designers 'compete' to create the best design. For the business commissioning the task, the advantage is clear: they get to pick from countless possible options, but only have to pick and buy one.
It sounds far too good to be true. And once you dig just a little further, perhaps it is. Will a designer who knows they probably won't even get paid at the end of it really give their all? Do they really bother to spend effort and time understanding your business and its goals, to generate a design that meets them?
However, according to Richard Querrey from www.contractphoneswithfreegifts.com who responded to my tweet asking about crowdsourcing he does think it works:
"We got our logo designed via the crowdsourcing method and we are very pleased with the result, working with designers we have found is very hit and miss so to get a wider selection of choice is much better, I'd always recommend guaranteeing your payment that way you know designers who are confident in their abilities will come forward and produce something really great."
But, the question remains will the very best designers really bother creating designs for crowdsourced projects whatsoever
Crowdsourcing for market research
Crowdsourcing isn't just about software development. It can also be ascribed to almost any circumstance in which you need work doing or a problem solving.
A typical use for crowdsourcing is market research. Instead of assuming you know what your potential customers want, or asking a small group to tell you the things they think, crowdsourcing lets you cast the net much wider.
You don't only have to ask your current customers. You could do what Dell did using its IdeaStorm project. Throw open an internet site that makes it easy for people to submit, discuss and vote on ideas, then see what goes on. You never know what will emerge.
Reportedly, ideas gleaned from IdeaStorm led the computing giant to introduce light-up keys to its laptops and prompted it to offer more colour choices to laptop buyers. Could crowdsourcing ideas result in improvements in your products too?
Clearly, IdeaStorm has worked well for Dell, with its multi-million pound marketing budget, plus its ability to generate publicity for such a large-scale crowdsourcing effort. But not each and every company is in a position to create the critical mass required for such a project to bear fruit.
Use crowdsourcing sensibly
The truth about crowdsourcing is that it's unlikely to change the way you do things. But it can be a helpful tool when looking for information, feedback and inspiration.
Just be wary. Crowdsourcing can promote superficiality. For instance, without guaranteed reward, you can't expect individuals to put a whole lot of effort into helping your crowdsourcing project - particularly when you're asking them to do something which is their livelihood.
For projects which require a high level of commitment - like redesigning your website, or making a new product - crowdsourcing might not be the answer. But when you're seeking opinions, feedback or advice, it can be a fantastic place to start.
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