Crowdsourcing Innovation

– by Adriano La Vopa –


parachute-1432296_960_720“Crowdsourcing is the act of taking a job traditionally performed by” an employee “and outsourcing it to an undefined, generally large group of people in the form of an open call”
. With these words in 2006 Jeff Howe on Wired online magazine explained for the first time the approach of sourcing tasks or activities from a crowd of people, generally outside the company, by means of calls that are usually open to the external world.

Following Howe’s definition, any company can basically leverage crowds out of their four walls to have some works done. Such a definition recalls also the very popular concept of Open Innovation, by Professor Chesbrough (2003), through which he basically explains how companies can leverage what is outside to create new knowledge, architectures and systems from which the company will benefit. To stress this concept of leveraging external knowledge, there is another quote I love, the one of Bill Joy, the Sun Microsystems’ co-founder “[…] no matter who you are, most of the smartest people work for someone else”. This latter clearly speaks by itself, showing a deep wisdom and consciousness that there are talents outside your company that are definitely smarter than the ones you have in house.

Then, the question is: how to leverage those talents, this knowledge, and how to reach them? The reply is definitely: by means of crowdsourcing.

Crowdsourcing is therefore sitting under the wide umbrella of Open Innovation, following the paradigm of opening to the outside world, and looking for leveraging the external knowledge by means of contests, challenges or calls that can gather any kind of contribution. Designs, solutions, ideas, concepts, expertise, skills, technologies, IP are just a few examples of what can be sourced by effectively exploiting the crowd. At a certain extent crowdsourcing is also linked to the main scouting activities, where in general a company seeks what they do not have in house, usually with a narrower focus, or need.

All these means are definitely affordable by any company, of any size, and of any pockets. What I always suggest to companies approaching the crowd, and willing to launch a challenge or a call, is that they have to set two very basic things: their strategy and their need.

Strategy

An effective strategy is indeed the very first step on approaching crowds. You can use the typical top-down approach, where you drive the show, can set the challenge, select communities and gather solutions. On the other hand, you can think to use a bottom-up approach, where the base is driving, by opening a generic call and waiting for contributions from the crowd.

In both cases, you should carefully balance the equation: company vs. communities (i.e. specific crowds). The right side of the equation is indeed expecting you to carefully plan the way you are going to cluster, assess, select and discard the results of your activity. This implies you have to plan in advance:

  • the time you are going to spend on this activity;
  • the resources you are going to invest (a team of assessors); and
  • the money (your budget) you are going to spend.

The left side of the equation imposes you to also carefully plan and look into the right communities to source from. This means you have to be clear on who you are going to ask your “question”, or outsource your “job”. For instance, there is no need to post a challenge on a social media if you would like to attract only mechanical engineers from Europe for solving your problem with the design of your product.

To be clear on what your company is going to do, and how, to reach the final goal of the crowdsourcing campaign you are launching is essential. To be clear means also you have to know what you want, and what your real need is.

Need

In several projects I worked on, defining the need is not always an easy task. Reasons for finding this exercise quite difficult are many: language, day-to-day work, jargon, mindset, and so on. In any case, there are few simple steps that I usually suggest to follow:

  • Be clear on what you need, and what is needed from a person to do in order to solve your issue, or to deliver what you want;
  • List down criteria, or requirements, that you are going to follow when assessing and selecting the best ideas;
  • Ask for an external help, meaning that you should ask to an external colleague (external to your team or department) to have a look at your brief, in order to understand if it is clear enough also to someone that is not daily in contact with a specific product, or service;
  • Use the right language for the right community. If you are going to ask for new ideas to your customers, do not use a technical language, or acronyms, but be very basic and use a “foul proof” vocabulary.

Defining the need in the right way is essential for an appreciable result of your campaign, and will be giving to the crowd the right trust they need, to start proposing their ideas. If the call is too complex, some people will not even read it; same goes with a call that is too easy, maybe the crowd you want to work with (e.g. researchers) will not engage because they will not feel enough challenged.

At this point, someone could ask: yes, nice concept, but how my business could benefit from it? Benefits are many, but usually could be reduced at three main ones, which are also the ones where most of companies, especially SMEs, are struggling with innovation: time, money and people.

Using crowdsourcing could definitely help you in decreasing the time spent for some activities. Being the crowd your source, you could be able to get the right solution to a problem that otherwise could have been hampering your new product development. Likewise, driving yourself a call, using the top-down approach, you could define a time limit to source solutions, which anyway should be consistent with the complexity of your call. Indeed, you could find a great new algorithm to enable your new protocol for your IoT device, simply sourcing it from outside and avoiding to develop it from scratch. People are also a critical factor to your innovation. The lack of resources, could stack people in their day-to-day work, and not give them the right time to think to new solutions, or “out of the box”. By leveraging the crowd, you basically leverage a potentially huge amount of people, which means extending your R&D department, for instance, asking to external experts how to solve a specific issue. Some simple math: being you a SME, and having just 10 engineers in your mould tooling design department, you might think to ask for help outside, in finding a better solution for your tool wearing problem. There you might find 10-20 more researchers or engineers for every one of yours, and this might be exponentially growing the possibility to find a solution, maybe from the other side of the world, but still valid to solve your problem. Last, but not least, there is money. Money is time, and a cent saved is a cent potentially reinvested in innovation. Thus, what if I can save money by simply asking outside and giving a reward of 10,000 € for a solution that it could have been likely costed my company 10 or 100 times more? This is business, and being able to leverage also this opportunity will make your business benefit from something which is anyway enabling you doing your business, even though it is not your own IP.

After this quick overview, let me just give you few very last advices:

  • Be careful in estimating the way you engage with communities;
  • Be clear that crowds should be benefiting your business and not hampering it, so crowdsourcing is an option, but not the option;
  • Crowdsourcing, as everything, has advantages and drawbacks, so ask for help of some crowdsourcing experts.

I hope I was able to show you a new path for innovating and accelerating your business, by means of crowdsourcing. Those above are just few considerations on how approaching crowds could mean to start your open innovation journey, and to use what others have already done, or are doing. Do not reinvent the wheel over and over, but just be smart and open instead.

 


adriano-la-vopaAdriano is a physicist with a specialisation on Earth Observation and satellite data processing. He earned an international master in Nanotechnologies (and business administration). He has an extensive experience in the technology transfer arena, and masters innovation management processes. He worked along to many SMEs, startups and big multinationals to support their innovation strategies by use of new technologies. He is an expert technology broker, a scout and a consultant, supporting companies in planning and executing their innovation strategies. He has a sound knowledge of processes, tools, methods and ways to empower the hidden innovation potential of any company. Adriano is currently partner at Innoventually, the one-stop source for innovation.

 

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