Sourcing from the crowd: a look at crowdsourcing

This post examines crowdsourcing, its advantages and disadvantages, and suggests how it will change the world in years to come.

In recent years, “crowdsourcing” is one of the new words that has entered our lexicon. We might have an idea what it means from the context in which it is used, but may not truly understand the impact that it is having, and why people are so excited about it. This post offers some insight into crowdsourcing, its advantages and disadvantages, and its likely impact in years to come.

What is crowdsourcing?

Simply put, crowdsourcing is a means of outsourcing tasks that normally would be undertaken by a few persons (e.g. an employee), to a large group of people (a crowd). Persons are invited to participate through an open call or invitation, and those who have opted to participate typically establish online communities through which they create, collaborate, innovate, etc.

Over time, crowdsourcing now typifies group-directed initiatives, which can be divided into four categories:

  • crowdcreation – persons engage in design/creation/development activities, such as video creation and various forms of problem solving
  • crowdfunding – people are asked to contribute money or other resources towards a common cause
  • crowdvoting – individual members of the community are polled to arrive at a group consensus which is in turn used to organise, filter and rank content.
  • crowdwisdom – the expertise available in a community is used to solve problems, make predictions, etc.

It is important to highlight that to varying degrees, all of these forms of crowdsourcing are nothing new. For example, the student who is asking for sponsors to support him or her in walk, is no different from record amounts of money President Obama raised during the US presidential elections in 2008, through the contributions of his supporters. However now, crowdsourcing has been more fully conceptualised and is being leveraged in a variety of new and different ways.

Pro and cons of crowdsourcing

As expected, crowdsourcing has become widely popular, especially in organisations, where they are now able to access expertise and manpower easily, and in ways that might not have been permissible in the past. Further, people seem keen to participate in communities, which in turn has fuelled the use of crowdsourcing. Some additional advantages include:

  • organisations can access a wider range of talent than might be present in its own organisation
  • problems can be explored very quickly
  • crowdsourcing tend to have considerably lower costs
  • organisations can secure first-hand insight from community.

On the other hand, crowdsourcing gets roundly criticised on a broad range of fronts. Chiefly, it is seen as a form of exploitation – since it is often used to source cheap, even free, labour for someone else’s gain.  Additionally, there are concerns about the quality of the output produced by the community, due to the disparate group of people all collaborating on a matter. Further, there is rarely any formal agreement with community members, so matters related to confidentiality, terms of work, etc., are not discussed.

How crowdsourcing will change the world

Currently, the business world is being driven by terms such as: efficiency, productivity and cost-containment. Hence increasingly, organisations are looking for opportunities through which those goals can be achieved. Outsourcing certain aspects of the business e.g. maintenance, or specific business processes, such as payroll, has been a key means through which cost, efficiency and productivity have been managed. However, thanks to crowdsourcing, the advances in technology, along with the changing dynamic of the work environment from primarily salaried employment to short-term contracts, “microwork” is developing prominence.

Microwork is a form of outsourcing that consists of a project or activity being broken down into a number of small, discrete tasks that can be undertaken by a large number of people. Historically, the term “microwork” was used in relation to providing people in poorer countries around the world with digital work opportunities:

The concept underpinning the centre is microwork, outsourcing bits of labour to disadvantaged youth, women and refugees in developing countries – from refugee camps in northeastern Kenya to remote pockets of rural Pakistan – and, now, Haiti.

It’s the brainchild of Leila Chirayath Janah, a tech-savvy, globetrotting Harvard graduate and former World Bank analyst, who founded Samasource, a San Francisco-based organization, in 2008.

It has connected 1,200 people with work so far – digital jobs that can be done over the Internet, so all that workers need are laptops, connectivity and training. Samasource’s motto: “Give work, not aid.” (Source: The Globe and Mail)

However, the concept has broadened over the last four years, and is now being embraced by the wider business community. Although still in the nascent stages, microwork is expected to have a direct and far-reaching impact on traditional businesses by forcing them to reassess their resource and management strategies in order to remain competitive.

Image courtesy of xedos4 / and phauly, Flickr.