HBR: Working with Crowds to Innovate or Solve Problems

Harvard Business Review, April 2013

Harvard Business Review, April 2013

TrendsWatch 2012 identified crowdsourcing as one of the seven major trends affecting museums, allowing more people to volunteer in meaningful work.  If you’re not familiar with crowdsourcing, it’s a “process of soliciting content, solutions, and suggestions from an undefined set of participants via the Internet.”  The April 2013 issue of the Harvard Business Review includes two articles on working with crowds in different ways:  one to innovate and the other to solve problems.

In “Using the Crowd as an Innovation Partner“, authors Kevin Boudreau and Karim Lakhani claim that “for certain types of problems, crowds can outperform your company.  You just need to know when–and how–to use them.”  If you’re hesitant to work with large groups on a project, the authors have identified four ways that best use crowd-powered problem solving and how to manage them:

  1. Contests (example: Longitude Prize)  “The most straightforward way to engage a crowd is to create a contest.  The sponsor (the company) identifies a specific problem, offers a cash prize, and broadcasts an invitation to submit solutions.  Contests have cracked some of the toughest scientific challenges in history, including the search for a way to determine longitude at sea.”
  2. Collaborative communities (example:  Wikipedia).  “Like contests, collaborative communities have a long and rich history.  They were critical to the development of  Bessemer steel, blast furnaces, Cornish pumping engines, and large-scale silk production.  But whereas contests separate contributions and maximize diverse experiments, communities are organized to marshal the outputs of multiple contributors and aggregate them into a coherent and value-creating whole–much as traditional companies do.”  
  3. Complementors (example: iTunes).  “Unlike contests or communities, complementors provide solutions to many different problems rather than just one.  The opportunity lies in the sheer volume of solutions. . . .The variety of complementary goods does more than generate revenue.  It can expand demand for the product itself, by making it more useful.”
  4. Labor markets (example: Amazon Mechanical Turk).  “Whereas contests offer crowds rewards for coming up with solutions to specific problems, labor markets match buyers and sellers of services and employ conventional contracting for services rendered. . . .Rather than matching workers to jobs within companies for long-term employment (as more traditional labor market intermediaries do), these highly flexible platforms serve as spot markets, matching skills to tasks.”

In “Community-Powered Problem Solving,” authors Francis Gouillart and Douglas Billings discuss how “large problems often present big opportunities.  The challenge is that their solutions often require the collaborative efforts of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people from different organizations.”  In place of crowdsourcing, they use co-creation to describe this new form of competition.  To build a co-creation system, the leaders need to begin with these questions:

  1. What community of individuals from inside the company and across external stakeholders do we need to connect to solve this problem?
  2. What platform (physical or digital forum) does this community need to start connecting in new ways?
  3. What new interactions will community members want to engage in on the platform to design a solution?
  4. What valuable professional experiences will the members get out of these interactions?
  5. What value will this new set of experiences generate for our firm and for the other organizations involved, creating a win for all parties?

These aren’t just great ideas for co-creation systems, but for task forces and partnerships in general.

Both articles provide more details and examples of their ideas, so if you’re looking to start something new or trying to solve an old problem, consider working with a crowd (after you read these articles!).

1 thought on “HBR: Working with Crowds to Innovate or Solve Problems

  1. Erik

    I think it is a great tool granted I am someone using a platform for crowd”funding” at the moment. Crowdsourcing is that missing link between meetings and doing. Some people just don’t want to go to meetings every month, they just want to “do” and also have a voice.

    If nothing else it has allowed people to see outside of the box to what can be done whether their city, organization, or situation adopts it…


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