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Crowdsourcing: An old tactic reaches new heights in the modern enterprise


Guest post by Ronda Swaney

Crowdsourcing is a low-risk, low-cost alternative to focus groups and market analysis that can build loyalty among fans and show customers and employees that their opinions matter and affect the direction of the company. The crowd's collective insights provide an automatic test market that saves time and money, and can reveal new market opportunities.largecrowdofpeoplewatchi_270796.jpg

Consider Lay's Do Us a Flavor campaign, a contest that encouraged consumers to suggest potato chip flavors—the winner received $1 million, and the winning flavor made its way into the company's product lineup. In 2015, New Zealand reached out to the public at in-person events and on social media to ask citizens to suggest redesigns of the national flag. The New Zealand Flag Consideration Project culminated in a nationwide vote that cemented the existing flag as the country's chosen icon.

HPE's Living Progress Challenge engaged the global community by inviting participants to answer one question: What software applications and digital services could be created to improve people's lives? The goal of the challenge was to improve the lives of one million people by 2020, by combining innovative ideas with IT. Winning solutions in the proposal phase were sent for prototyping by developers, Big Data analysts, and the crowdsourcing community.

Projects like the Living Progress Challenge show that large enterprises can work for the greater good while also improving business processes and speeding innovation. In a 2015 survey by BCG Perspectives, speed, rather than scale, proved critical to innovation. In the survey, 42 percent of innovation executives said long development times hampered return on innovation and product development, a six percent increase over the previous year. Fast innovators, according to BCG, are also more disruptive. "A growing emphasis on speed," says BCG, "even among companies that are already fast, suggests that a new realization is dawning: the demand for speed is itself increasing."

The risks of crowdsourcing

This type of outreach for feedback requires a strong base, so lack of interest or limited responses can cut a project off at the knees, especially for companies without a significant following or that are focused on the wrong problem. Consider the attempt by Canonical to raise $32 million via crowdfunding. The requested sum was steep, and they failed to raise even half that amount—in part because the funds were meant to solve a problem that no one felt existed (making a smartphone into a powerful PC that could be used for work).

The possibility of receiving unhelpful, even embarrassing feedback also exists. In March 2016, the UK's Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) asked the public to help name a state-of-the-art £200m polar research ship, resulting in "Boaty McBoatface," which unfortunately went viral and was ultimately rejected by the NERC. Although the output of any crowd is unpredictable, you'll get better results by targeting an audience with a vested interest in your project, rather than asking the general public. The NERC would have seen better results if it had asked for input from students, scientists, and teachers genuinely interested in the scientific and educational outcomes of the project.

A quality crowdsourced project

Following the best practices of successful crowdsourced projects can help keep your project on track. These tips are a good start:

  1. Aim to solve a specific problem. MIT's Climate CoLab is one example: The site encourages people from around the world to address climate change. They run contests and keep participants focused on real-world outcomes by using online tools to determine the actual impact of the proposed solution.
  2. Approach the right crowd. You want people involved who care about the outcome of your project. For example, Scientific American taps into their science-loving crowd through their Citizen Science project. In describing the results, they say the effort "has done more than simply enhance existing research. It has also engaged a range of viewpoints that otherwise would have remained below the radar, allowing new people to provide new ideas to solve new problems."
  3. Assemble a team to identify quality feedback. Too many ideas can be equally as troublesome as too few. Have a team in place to review the ideas and determine which are worth pursuing. In the Living Progress Challenge, the team received 400 ideas and more than 130 proposals. From that group, 20 were chosen to move on to the design phase of the competition.
  4. Reward the curiosity and investment of the crowd. Keep your crowd informed about how the project is going. Let them know your thoughts behind choosing a particular path, and keep information flowing so your crowd feels part of the process. The New Zealand Flag Consideration Project followed this advice at every step, and the website tied to the project shows the entire process from beginning to end.

Crowdsourcing comes with risks, but they're manageable. When done well, markets are discovered, decisions are made, and problems are solved. The result can take your company to a new level and create dedicated followers for your business.

To learn more about using crowdsourcing to solicit ideas, visit HPE's Bright Idea.


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