Enterprise Crowdsourcing and the Growing Fragmentation of Work

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The enterprise environment has traditionally been a closed shop, an insular setting where organizations recruited specialist help – talent that they retained within their own corporate boundaries. Products and services were developed in-house, based on established precedents and knowledge – and sold in competition with other establishments that were pretty much operating in the same manner.

But with developments in technology, improved communications (including Internet connectivity), and a global workforce that’s becoming increasingly well-educated, a new business environment is emerging – one where talent and ideas from a wide range of sources may be called upon to assist enterprises in their efforts.

In a report titled “The Three Billion: Enterprise Crowdsourcing and the Growing Fragmentation of Work“, Deloitte LLP, the UK arm of Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu Limited (DTTL), throw the spotlight on an evolving trend that’s helping to reshape the pattern of work as we know it. This article summarizes its main points.

Many Hands…

There are historical precedents for this phenomenon, dating back to 1567, when King Philip II of Spain issued a challenge to the inventors of his time to come up with a practical technique for measuring longitudes at sea. The challenge wasn’t met until 1714, when the “Longitude Rewards” scheme set up by the UK government finally paid a winner with today’s equivalent of about £2.5 million.

Other initiatives since then have given us the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED; 1879), and the likes of Wikipedia, which emerged at the start of this century, and is one of the commonly known examples of crowdsourcing.

What is Crowdsourcing?

The term “crowdsourcing” was coined in 2005 by Wired magazine editors Jeff Howe and Mark Robinson, to describe a process whereby an organization gives an open call to a large and undefined network of people to provide solutions to a problem which would otherwise be handled internally, by their employees. It’s also known as “open innovation”, and may be performed on a solo basis, or through collaboration between individuals or groups.

Disruptive Innovation at Work

Crowds have always featured in business, with focus groups, consumer surveys, product R & D, and methods of increasing customer engagement contributing to the success of individual companies through their use of inputs from a large unstructured group of contributors. Yet crowdsourcing is still some way from being an accepted practice.

A Slow Pace of Adoption

An unwillingness to deviate from standard practices is at the root of the problem. Businesses may be unwilling to surrender control of their data, intellectual property, and processes (however temporarily) to outside parties. And asking a huge group of strangers for help seems contrary to established wisdom.

There’s still a tendency for corporations to hoard talent for themselves – even when faced with a work environment that now sees frequent job changes as the norm, and an information culture in which new skills are becoming available to an ever wider pool of potential experts.

Business Applications of the Crowd

To date, crowdsourcing strategies have been applied in fields ranging from vocabulary building and language translation, validation of data, the tagging of images, and the Search for Extra-terrestrial Intelligence (SETI), to consultancy and market intelligence services, film-making, and the farming out of household chores for busy professionals.

No formal classifications have yet been agreed upon, but some general approaches exist.

  • Problem-based applications revolve around open calls for solutions to specific issues, and may constitute a “group think” method of implementation, or be individually based.
  • Task-based applications call on the crowd to provide willing hands to take on specific physical or process-based jobs.
  • Platform-based applications may involve problem solving or task related elements, with talent sourcing and delivery co-ordinated through a central administrative hub.  

Enterprise crowd platforms like P&G’s ‘Connect + Develop’ (which has globally led to over 2,000 innovation partnership agreements) are now becoming an attractor for companies and organizations in the public sector who are looking to exploit the crowd’s talent pool to find answers to existing problems, or to do jobs more efficiently than their own employees.

The Individual Element

For individuals, crowdsourcing may be both an avenue for finding better employment opportunities, and the potential source of greater financial rewards. As talent becomes an “open source” commodity through crowdsourcing’s alternative recruitment model, there’s been a corresponding shift in motivation for those involved in it, who embrace opportunities to learn, or enhance their reputation amongst their peers.

Business Benefits

For businesses, crowdsourcing can tap into the creative talents and competitive spirit of people throughout the world. By throwing problems open to a global pool of knowledge for solution, enterprises can sift through a multitude of ideas and responses, confident that at least some among them will be suited to their needs.

Competitive advantage these days requires organizations to have top-notch intelligence and an army of willing hands at their disposal. With low-cost mobile applications, they have access to contributors across the globe. And with crowdsourcing, businesses can scale their recruitment levels up or down as needed, without having to adopt these world-wide contributors as permanent staff.

Problems, Too

There are complications, of course – most notably with an organization’s surrender of control, when it throws a problem open to the world for a solution. Revealing confidential information, intellectual property rights, the potential losses to copyright infringement, piracy, or espionage are just some of the data security issues which have to be addressed.

The effective handling of existing staff, and the reactions of an organization’s employees to perhaps being sidelined by the crowdsourcing process are among the issues on the human level.

Potential for the Future

With mobile access to the Internet growing exponentially, and the likes of Gartner, Inc. predicting that 75% of the world’s leading enterprises will have turned to crowdsourcing by 2018, it’s a phenomenon that can’t be ignored – and one that’s well worth investigating.

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