Crowdsourcing Has Its 15 Minutes of Fame

Every movement has its defining moment, those 15 minutes of fame when it moves into the general consciousness and suddenly goes from niche to the next big thing. Sometimes, that move can be a good thing, an indicator that a topic will now command the attention and respect it is due as people take it more seriously. However, sometimes, well sometimes it means that everyone is jumping on the bandwagon just to jump. Overnight, it is the “cool” thing to do, the way to get some easy PR. There is a flash flood of attention and publicity that will saturate the market for a while before everyone moves onto the next big thing. One of the recent examples of this that comes to mind is virtual world technology; a couple of years ago you could not read news publications without a bombardment of predictions of how this was going to change the world. Then suddenly, the press pieces slowed to a trickle and all anyone could talk about was social media.

I have seen a couple of pieces of evidence recently that crowdsourcing may be heading into its moment in the sun.

Exhibit A: while watching a popular reality show a few months ago, the Chief Innovation Officer of a major US food company introduced a “challenge” for the competitors. While it was unclear exactly what the challenge had to with innovation and crowdsourcing, the company’s web-based crowdsourcing endeavors were given a plug and the role of Chief Innovation Officer was raised to a whole new level in the viewing public’s consciousness.

Exhibit B: While on an international flight recently, I was reading the in-flight magazine and came across a multi-page article titled “Crowdsourcing.” The synopsis described the topic as “To harness the opinions and needs of the crowd via innovative websites.” It went on to claim, “Welcome to the Web-based creative democracy.” It was a good piece that gave a decent, high-level description of open innovation and crowdsourcing, discussed some of the more famous examples, discussed the challenges, the potential pay-offs and mentioned some of the likely losers (the ad and design agencies).

What does this new spotlight on innovation mean? I think that in the short-term, it will probably mean an explosion of highly publicized crowdsourcing sites. What is the problem with this? Well, I remember when every company suddenly wanted to put up branded real estate in virtual worlds; just doing it so the company could say that they were doing it and with no real sense of what the value proposition might be beyond a bit of quick easy press coverage. This strategy rarely paid off in the end.  Many companies opened up big, splashy virtual offices only to shut them down a year or so later blaming the underlying technology as gimmicky and a waste of time, when the truth was, that usually, the company’s efforts had been ill conceived and often badly executed. The real downside of this trend was that it gave the virtual worlds a bad rap and contributed to the reluctance of other organizations even to consider entering the field. Will things be different this time around? Only time will tell.

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11 Responses to Crowdsourcing Has Its 15 Minutes of Fame

  1. Marisa Walls says:

    Good article. I agree with you regarding the crowdsourcing and the short lasting 15 minutes of fame because it has nothing to do with innovation. Better said by Dan Woods, “Crowds don’t innovate – individuals do.” at http://www.evolvedtechnologist.com

  2. Jonathan Reichental says:

    Sarah: In the IT industry we deal with a lot of hype. A central challenge is to seperate the real substance from that which has no long-term merit. On this point I agree with you. I do caution though the relationship between publicity and substance. Specifically, while virtual worlds do not get much press these days, in reality this space is growing from strength to strength. More money is being spent (read: actual profit), there is wider corporate usage particularly in eLearning and online meetings and participation is growing rapidly. I have also found that media attention can be late. While Cloud Computing is the buzzword these days, at its heart it is not a “new” technology. Remember ASPs? So media attention can simply mean that public interest critical mass has been reached. I do agree with you that the jury is out on crowdsourcing, but it does seem rather compelling as a candidate for the long-term.

  3. Sarah Firisen says:

    Jonathan, I completely agree, the loss of media focus doesn’t necessarily mean anything except the loss of the media’s focus. Personally, I believe that crowdsourcing is here for the long haul. My concern is rather that excessive, over-hyping by the media drives corporations to feel that they have to join in and causes them to do so halfheartedly, just so they can be seen to be active in the arena. The results are then less than stellar and causes a lot of negative press regarding whatever the technology is. This negative press now makes corporations unwilling to take the technology seriously as a viable business opportunity. I think that we saw this scenario played out in spades with virtual worlds.

  4. Kamal Hassan says:

    Sarah,

    Thanks for the article. Don’t you think we should try and try to get it to work? The concept is brilliant but the application is bad. Innovation and growth starts with failure.

    I agree with you on the fact that there is a lot of hype around “crowedsourcing”. However, I believe that one model of crowedsourcing will emerge and will dominate. A case in point is the iPhone. For over 10 years before the iPhone, there were 100s of attempts to develop a useable PDA, including Apply Newton.

    Thanks – Kamal

  5. I agree that the fame is likely to be fleeting, but the usefulness of crowdsourcing isn’t. “Crowdsourcing” (the idea and not the terminology) has been around as long as conversation has and it will likely be with us for as long as we exist as a social species. Only the scope and specific communications channels are likely to change and evolve.

    I think that the biggest factor working against crowdsourcing is the same as any other overhyped idea. It becomes the proverbial “hammer” and many end up disappointed when they try to use it to drive screws. Crowdsourcing is just another tool in the innovation toolbox. It’s useful for very specific types of problems and ideation, but it doesn’t warrant throwing out your other tools or trying to turn all of your challenges into “nails”. When the hype dies down, we’ll see more companies adopting crowdsourcing as a useful tool and fewer preaching it as a religion or a replacement for some other “innovation strategy”.

  6. Janelle says:

    Focused crowdsourcing, where it’s not just about collecting large amount of ideas and getting participation, but actually following through on ideas through implementation, will long outlast the current buzz. That is because there is long term value in customer co-creation like sites such as http://ideas.acrobat.com help facilitate. Also, open innovation like the campaign running in Ireland, Your County Your Call, has had enormous success beyond just the initial buzz.

  7. normlewis says:

    As a co-author of the Big Potatoes Innovation Manifesto (www.bigpotatoes.org) which is critical of crowdsourced innovation , I agree and disagree with your points. Where I agree is that crowdsourced innovation has become a fad which many enterprises are now adopting, particularly as a substitute for their own R&D and risk taking. Where I disagree, is that this same risk aversion and short-termism, ironically, is going to ensure that the real potential of collaborative innovation networks will never be realised. Far from this representing another technology-led hype curve, the potential of harnessing internal and external collaboration holds out real possibilities to transform innovation across and between industries. The short-term business culture we exist in today is the problem. Crowdsourced innovation could be a real source of change, but this depends upon how creatively we articulate the problem we need to solve. Here it is not collaborative approaches that are the problem but the institutionalised low expectations we now seem to have of what innovation can do.

  8. Tom Foale says:

    Crowdsourcing could be a great idea (in Wikipedia innovation networks were called Ideagoras). On the basis that two heads are better than one, fifty million heads are better than the ten thousand in the body corporate. Employees also tend to be employed because of their skill at a function, not their creativity, and the range of wider knowledge they can call on to solve problems is often limited.

    Like a lot of things in business, it is adopted because executives have heard of a few spectacular successes and want to share in the benefits, but without taking time to understand what leads to success or failure. It’s just part of the hype curve of new ideas. This sort of hype-led adoption followed by failure is quite probably a good way of identifying those who shouldn’t be in the executive team at all.

    I remember when every chief executive wanted an Intranet because a few organisations had reported billions of dollars in savings from one. They usually gave the job to the IT department without understanding where the benefits came from and why, let alone the impact an intranet would have on critical application performance on early IP networks and the costs they would have to swallow first. The IT department could give them an Intranet but it didn’t come with any of the anticipated cost savings from that source.

    Crowdsourcing will survive and develop. How much interest the crowd pays to it will depend on how the rewards are shared – this is an area that needs a few more success stories too.

  9. Pingback: Built to Thrive – exploring the new business landscape » Towards the new basics

  10. Dan Almour says:

    We are using crowd sourcing (although we do not call it that) on projects where teams can do a more comprehensive work and analysis, and yes, it does work. Bringing a team together, even on an ad-hoc basis, to work and analyze, does bring more to the
    issue. The key is management, if left alone, the team members tend to work on somewhat different tangents, so having a person monitoring and managing the work is essential to make the crowd sourcing work.

  11. Interesting comments. I think actually seeing open innovation in action in the real world might impact your thinking. Please have a look at https://gw.innocentive.com/ar/challenge/browse to get a sense for what is happening in industrial strength open innovation today – every day. -Dwayne Spradlin InnoCentive CEO and PwC alum

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