MT Expert - Innovation: The benefits of crowdsourcing

Crowdworks' Jason Burrows argues that crowdsourcing is a cheap and proven way for businesses to innovate and improve...

Last Updated: 06 Nov 2012

Before the emergency budget was announced earlier this year, crowdsourcing was a relatively unknown concept in the UK – and many of those that did know about it were sceptical, to say the least. But with the Government using crowdsourcing to facilitate a mass public consultation on how to reduce the national debt and improve public service provision, the nation’s intrigue is on the rise. While we wait for the Treasury to consider the workability of the tens of thousands of suggestions put forward, savvy members of the business community are looking at whether and how crowdsourcing can transcend politics and improve their own operations.

So what is crowdsourcing and where did it come from? The concept behind crowdsourcing is that the best ideas in life often come from the most unexpected places; that two heads are better than one; and that 1,000 heads are better than two. Taking crowdsourcing, or mass-collaboration, from concept to practice involves a web-based platform, built upon social media, that enables members of a relevant community to voice ideas on how to solve a specific set of problems and vote on the suggestions put forward by their peers.

Not surprisingly, crowdsourcing started out in the States. In terms of its business benefits, cynics will tell you that it’s yet another buzz word, part of the social media frenzy – all fluff and no substance or demonstrable return. Yet dig a little deeper, and crowdsourcing is just a concise term for cost-effectively harnessing the collective wisdom of the crowd. Whether it’s opening up debate past the traditional boardroom barriers to engage front-line staff on decisions usually made on their behalf, or targeting customers to improve product and service offerings, or looking for ways to reduce spend or improve processes – mass ideas collaboration, facilitated by social media, has a lot to offer businesses if approached with thought and enthusiasm.

An example of crowdsourcing delivering in a business capacity can be found in Unilever’s recently launched crowdsourcing competition to develop its new ad campaign for signature brand, Peperami. Not only did this help the company to engage with (and no-doubt collect contact details for) a key section of its customer base – it received in excess of 1,200 suggestions - but Unilever estimated the process worked out up to 70 per cent cheaper than its traditional advertising agency approach.

But for crowdsourcing to be effective, as it was for Unilever, there are some ground-rules, and indeed pitfalls, to be aware of. The over-moderation of a crowdsourcing platform can alienate members and end up being counter-productive. The first rule of crowdsourcing is to remember that ideas generation via mass collaboration needs to be organic in order to be successful. People also have to believe you have a genuine interest in sourcing their ideas, comments and votes. Crowdsourcing must not be used as a political device or cynical exercise to try to make people - whether that’s staff, customers or the general public –feel like their ideas are valued. Businesses using crowdsourcing must deliver on their promise to seek new solutions.

Crowdsourcing is still in its infancy in the UK. But for many businesses, from major supermarket retailers and television production companies to SMEs across multiple B2B and B2C sectors, it represents an internationally proven and cost-effective way to embrace innovation, tackle waste and improve performance.

Jason Burrows is the creator of Crowdworks, a crowdsourcing platform

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