Monday, October 20, 2008

The Battleground of Crowdsourcing - a focus on feedback

So much talk is being generated about Crowdsourcing these days in the technorati and user-innovation led circle.

Tonight, however, I would like to auger in on the subject of feedback and its critical role in crowdsourcing.

As the very name would suggest, "Crowd+Sourcing" ought to be about something being generated/found from within a crowd. That is the easy part. But here is the more weighty question, and this is where the name belies the meaning, "Do you let the beast free? Does the crowd get to meet itself along the way? Can the members offer each other critique? or Is critique deserved for the "sourcer"?"

When I first found my way into this business, the answer to this question seemed up for grabs. You could, if you wanted, open the floodgates of feedback to the masses, but in case people would "get offended too easily by the unwashed masses commenting on their work", you could restrict the feedback creation only to those who asked for the crowd to compete in the first place.

After only a year of being in this business, I now feel as if the answer is no longer up for grabs. Feedback must be open and ubiquitous.

Since Jeff Howe coined the term in 2006, this crowd-based model has undergone a small explosion and also a limited form of backlash. One need only read the Wikipedia entry (an example of crowdsourcing in and of itself) to find great examples of the method in action in addition to finding its more commonly touted unintended negative effects (i.e. added costs to get to completion, failure due to lack of motivation, below market wages, etc).

These negative effects are all potential results of crowdsourcing, but they are by no means a foregone conclusion. It is like anything, you get nothing for nothing, or rather you get what you pay for.

In this case, I believe one of the great causes of negativity in crowdsourcing is born from the wrong-headed notion that feedback should be bottled up. In the traditional method of sourcing work, I would look for a worker with certain skills. Once found, I would hire that worker, pay him, and bound him to secrecy. Together (in a confidential space) we would scheme about our work. And eventually, we would unveil the finished product to the masses with fingers crossed.

In crowdsourcing, I can find my way into that confidential space with many workers, before paying, and if I keep the feedback bottled up (i.e. just between me and the worker) this ends up being a thousand two way conversations with only me on the receiving and giving end of those thousand conversations. Good for me! No better for everyone else than the days before crowdsourcing.... except that they are now doing a lot of work for me before being chosen to work for real or before being paid a dime.

That is to say, the crowd gets nothing out of crowdsourcing until the feedback loop is open. Once that happens the effort becomes less about you and your needs and more about the crowd and its learning and thirst for self-improvement. Nothing could be more valuable, a global classroom, bar-room, and gallery is created all at once and there is a reason to return that goes beyond money. In the end, competition will happen, you almost cannot avoid it, and great products will be sourced, but as the community creator, you have to be willing to get out of your own way.

Simple, yes, and yet so many people screw it up. Every day, I see another conventional company stretching for innovation. At a loss for ideas, they reach out for some of that "crowdsourcing" stuff; set up a competition; and task their marketers to judge the results and to pay the winner. YUK! this is like spending the effort to create frankenstein only to give him the scary looks and omit the superhuman strength....all you get is an ugly, weak monster.

Sure it costs money to build a reliable feedback mechanism for the crowd, and yes, god-forbid that you would actually pay for them to meet each other and you in real life. But, again, you get what you pay for. If you invest in the crowd, they will share their wisdom and you will both come away richer.

If you have any questions, I urge you to come meet us when we go on the road to meet our community in California (San Francisco and LA) we will be bringing our company on the road to share the results of the community efforts in person and to talk about where we have taken them. Guaranteed we will be there hosting the forum, but we will NOT be doing the lion share of the talking.