Since its launch in 2001, Wikipedia has expanded to have versions in 270 languages and is accessed by millions of people seeking information from all over the world, each day. Yet it may come as a surprise to learn that this massive collection of information is not run by just one group of people in an office, Wikipedia is updated and ‘run’ by everyone. This is the phenomenon of crowdsourcing.
Crowdsourcing is a portmanteau of the terms ‘Outsourcing’ and ‘Crowd’. It refers to the rising phenomenon of outsourcing particular tasks to ordinary people usually using the Internet as the medium of interaction. It can be for profit or otherwise. This phenomenon has appeared as the rise of social media and interactive technologies on the web (sometimes referred to as Web 2.0 services) have made it far easier for organizations to interact with the online community.
Crowdsourcing allows an organization to outsource specific tasks to the ‘crowd’ or to the community. This form of outsourcing to the crowd may be performed with tasks ranging from Problem Solving, Design, Work, Testing, and Support. Crowdsourcing may not appear so strange if you realize that some organizations in Ghana already use an ‘offline’ form of it. For example, during Ghana’s Golden Jubilee celebrations, the government chose to crowdsource the design of the official logo by inviting people around Ghana to submit their design ideas and eventually one was chosen.
This eventual design was of great quality, attested by the beautiful cloth woven using that design. Ghana’s government could have spent thousands of Ghana Cedis hiring a professional advertising or design company to design the logo. Instead, by crowdsourcing it, they managed to obtain a high quality design for far less as well as made Ghanaians feel more a part of the festivity planning. These are some of the benefits crowdsourcing brings to any organization.
As stated earlier, the different areas where crowdsourcing may be applied by businesses fall into five (5) broad areas.
Problem Solving. ‘A problem shared is a problem solved’. It is this belief that drives the concept of crowdsourcing to solve organizational problems. This approach has yielded great results particularly in the area of science, where crowdsourcing has been and is used to solve tricky scientific problems through harnessing people’s collective intelligence. A recent example of this is the fact that ordinary gamers, playing a specially created video game called Fold.It were able to figure out the structure of the enzyme of a virus similar to AIDS which had baffled professional scientists for decades. Innocentive (www.innocentive.com) is a leader in this form of crowdsourcing by providing a platform for companies (such as Proctor & Gamble, DOW Chemicals and Eli Lilly) to pose challenges to users who receive a financial reward for providing a solution. In Ghana, businesses, especially tech/science-related ones, can use this form of crowdsourcing to spot and use the talent of those outside the company and solve some of their pressing problems.
Design. This is one area where crowdsourcing has been quickly adopted, as explained earlier the Ghanaian government and many other agencies in Ghana use this form of crowdsourcing when planning public campaigns or promotions. Websites such as DeviantArt are proof that artistic talent is plentiful outside established marketing companies. Instead of spending thousands of Ghana Cedis paying established marketing companies, organizations can make use of this public talent (evident even in our street artists) as they drive their own name and brand recognition as well as public participation in their design and marketing. LG Electronics, in 2009, crowdsourced the design for a new mobile phone using the CrowdSpring network. BootB is another excellent online resource for crowdsourcing creative work.
Work. Many businesses, especially small ones, usually have many myriad tasks which they may not be able to afford to permanently hire staff to take care of. In this manner, organizations can crowdsource such activities as editing web pages and information collection. For example, Ghana’s National Disaster Management Organization (NADMO) can crowdsource its disaster assessment and relief activities to the people by engaging the help of people in pinpointing the problems in different areas during a disaster and get the necessary relief to the area as soon as possible. Amazon’s Mechanical Turk is the premier crowdsourcing platform for work-related issues as it has thousands of users signed up who are ready to perform tasks posted by corporations for a relatively little reward.
Testing. This aspect of crowdsourcing has been utilized for many years by software producers. Product testing by the crowd ensures that fresh, unbiased eyes get to use a product and spot problems as well as give insight about issues that the developers may be unaware of. Crowdsourcing product testing has been practiced for many years by software companies such as Google who took services such as Google+ through a period of extensive testing by inviting many members of the public to use the service before finally opening it fully to all. Online services such as online multiplayer games go through alpha and beta testing from select members of the public. uTest (www.utest.com) provides a crowdsourcing platform where businesses can employ the crowd to test their web, desktop and mobile applications.
Support. The rise of online communities in the form of public web forums and social media sites has driven the arena of customer-delivered customer service. Perform a quick search on the web and you will likely find dozens of fan sites devoted to any particular product or service. These sites usually have forums in which enthusiastic users share information and help other users solve problems with that product/service, all without the involvement of the producing company. On Facebook, many product/service pages are places where any user posting a problem may find his problem addressed by another user even before the company itself addresses it. Companies can thus, reliably, crowdsource their product support using general services such as Web Forums or Facebook or using specific platforms such as FixYa (www.fixya.com) or GetSatisfaction.com (used by Amazon, Pampers, BT, Panasonic, Microsoft etc.)
So what are some of the clear-cut benefits of crowdsourcing?
Lower Costs. Crowdsourcing usually comes at a much cheaper cost than traditional methods of design, work, or testing. Especially in designing marketing content, crowdsourcing may present the cheaper option of similar or better quality. Even in the area of work, crowdsourcing may prove the cheaper option for a company as opposed to hiring more permanent workers, Professional services such as Amazon’s Mechanical Turk would ensure work done is of a good quality and completed on time.
Great Quality. Crowdsourcing can also provide a quality of work, especially in design, that is of similar if not better quality than that obtained from professional marketing businesses. Professional designing firms do not have a monopoly on creativity and it may prove beneficial for a business to tap the talent of the crowd for such projects.
Crowd Participation. Organizations, especially public ones, like to be close to their customers. Crowdsourcing grants this by allowing your customers to feel a part of the organization and its activities. This forms a stronger bond between the organization and its publics. This is the reason Michelle Lindblom of JG Visual advocates increased crowdsourcing by colleges and universities especially.
Talent Spotting. Crowdsourcing, especially in problem-solving, is an excellent way for organisations to spot talent from the workforce in those who participate in crowdsourced projects. It is often lamented how much talent in Ghanaians goes to waste and how low the quality of many of our graduates is. Thus, participation and success in crowdsourcing projects will allow organisations to pinpoint quality personnel with a proven example of effectiveness who may not have necessarily applied directly for a job.
However, it is important to note that crowdsourcing does have its drawbacks, such as:
Exploitation. Some people are of the opinion that crowdsourcing involves exploiting people for cheap labor. Jimmy Wales, the co-founder of Wikipedia refuses to refer to Wikipedia itself as crowdsourced as he associates the term with corporations exploiting free/cheap labor. However, contrary to popular belief, studies have shown that ‘individuals in the crowd experience significant benefits from their participation in crowdsourcing applications.
Privacy Issues. Crowdsourcing often cannot be used for important corporate work as, very often, there are no written contracts or non-disclosure agreements with those who do the work so there is a risk ideas may be stolen and confidential organisational plans/activities may become public.
Collaboration. When crowdsourcing a task there is often a difficulty in collaborating efforts between members of the ‘crowd’ and employees of the company. If a task were being performed solely by an individual or organisation it would be easy for that task to be tracked and the organization to monitor progress. However, when a task is crowdsourced, especially as it concerns non-employees, it may be difficult for managers to link efforts from both employees and crowdsourced partners. To counteract this, most organizations ensure that crowdsourced tasks are not so large and frequently reviewed to ensure quality.
Organisations like Wikipedia are proof that crowdsourcing can and does work, bringing people together in new and profitable ways. Ghanaian businesses can pick up on this trend and spot talent in the workforce as well as helping our students prepare themselves to tackle real world or business challenges.
A country is built by its people, and crowdsourcing appears to be the best way organisations in the public and private sector can make use of the diverse and often unexploited talent of our people in solving problems and driving success.
By: Terence Adjei-Otchwemah
Continue the conversation at: