Mob wisdom means business

So-called 'crowdsourcing' lets companies create massive focus groups, garner fresh ideas, and even predict the future

Crowdsourcing, mob wisdom, interactive ideation, artificial AI -- call it what you will, but the idea of tapping external collaborators to develop or enhance products and services is far from revolutionary.

What is revolutionary about this Web-era twist on traditional BI tools such as focus groups and customer surveys is the breadth and depth of intelligence that can be gathered, the ease with which such projects can be undertaken, and the scale of returns that can be achieved with little upfront investment.

Yet opening up corporate conundrums to crowds in search of answers is not for the faint of heart. A targeted approach is best for those seeking to cash in on what Crowdsourcing.com blogger and Wired Contributing Editor Jeff Howe calls the "application of Open Source principles to fields outside of software."

Buying in to mob wisdom

What differentiates crowdsourcing from focus groups is that focus groups typically bring a select number of people together in one location for a set period of time, whereas most crowdsourcing initiatives are open-ended, soliciting feedback from a swath of geographically dispersed participants who share little in common other than an interest in the topic at hand.

Also, as opposed to relying on traditional recording devices, checklists, and the famous two-way mirror, crowdsourcing aggregates feedback using customized Web-based databases that enable stakeholders to slice and dice data in ways heretofore unimaginable. Crowdsourcing bears fruit in its potential to uncover keen competitive insights in many directions at once.

Yet with corporate professionals still struggling for approval to launch a mere blog, those who see value in tapping the wisdom of crowds face an uphill battle in launching an initiative. After all, divulging corporate challenges to millions of people is not something many C-suite executives have the stomach for.

What's more, lingering disappointment with the results of old-guard methodologies have cast a pallor over external collaboration as a viable BI-gathering technique. Focus groups and customer surveys have been lambasted for creating an uncommon set of favorable circumstances for participants, resulting in little bottom-line insight, mostly because what people say and do are usually two different things.

James Surowiecki, author of "The Wisdom of Crowds: Why the Many Are Smarter than the Few and How Collective Wisdom Shapes Business, Economies, Societies, and Nations," points out another internal hurdle to launching a crowdsourcing initiative at most organizations.

"The barriers there tend to be more institutional or maybe even psychological," he says. "There might be a wariness on behalf of management of hearing what people actually think or the effects of that information on morale or strategy."

But if you think crowdsourcing is alive only among the hip, latte-drinking, highly funded Web 2.0 startup crowd, think again. Major brands such as Dell, Eli Lilly, Proctor & Gamble, Google, and Best Buy are already reaching their corporate hands into the collective wisdom pot in hopes of extracting knowledge-laden honey.

The crowdsourcing conundrum

When it comes to launching a crowdsourcing initiative, knowing which corporate problems can withstand public scrutiny is key.

As Lloyd Tabb, CTO of LiveOps, says, "It's all about the value of the solution versus the cost of revealing the problem. So you have to evaluate on an individual basis: 'Is it worth revealing this problem so that I can get a solution?' "

Spearheading arguably one of the largest distributed call centers, with more than 16,000 active service agents, Tabb has deep roots in crowdsourcing. One of the founders of Mozilla.org, Tabb also previously worked as the information architect of Netscape Communicator, where he was a key player in establishing Open Directory -- a project that set the stage for products such as Wikipedia.

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