The Power and the Weakness of Crowds

Crowdsourcing is incredibly powerful. When the crowd is filled with the right people, attacking the right problem, using the right tools, and managed by the right process and team.

But just as bad data can lead to bad decisions, the wrong crowd, solving the wrong problem, or not managing the process correctly, can lead to a useless crowdsourcing exercise. The first place to start is to ask yourself what are you looking for the crowd to do for you?

If you’re looking for the crowd to invent or create something for you, something you are sure doesn’t exist and/or that you want created specifically for you, are you able to articulate the specific need (or “want”) in the form of a challenge and can you get the right audience to work on that challenge for you? Is it likely that the panel you are tapping into will have the right context and skills, or adjacent/analogous knowledge, to be relevant to your challenge? How can you promote to that right audience? How can you manage the crowd’s efforts to build on each other’s insights and ideas while controlling and managing the IP rights along the way? Innocentive has built a nice business around this and has had success solving these new-to-the-world challenges.

If you’re looking, however, to find something that you think might already exist, you might want to think differently. If you’re looking to expand your supply chain or your collaborative partnerships, a large, pre-existing panel of “individual challenge solvers” is not well aligned with your goal. You need a crowd that is designed to hunt and discover, rather than problem solve and invent against something they’ve never seen before. You need a crowd that likes to pull on connections, find knowledge and people that are already working on things relating to your “want” and your challenge. You need to manage that crowd’s discovery activity by having experts filter and synthesize, and directing where and how to look.

In this second example, the “crowd” is being used to find a group of players that might have a solution (or a path to a solution) to your “want”. The crowd is solving for information asymmetry and discovery, not solving the problem itself directly. Ideally, the crowd is managed in such a way to provide you with a list of potential suppliers/partners that you can promote your “want” to. In a sense, you’ve turned the crowd into a massively parallel headhunting machine…

So the next time you think about crowdsourcing, think about your end goal and work backwards from there to the right solution…