Donal Reddington on mass customization, crowdsourcing and digital manufacturing


Categories of crowdsourcing and more on whether contributors should be paid

Since the crowdsourcing phenomenon was first documented during 2006, in a Wired magazine article by Jeff Howe, followed by his book of that name in 2007, the business and technology world has continued to adopt the concept, with varying models and methods.

In some cases, the crowdsourcing model used involved a reward of some kind for contributors, on other occasions there is not. I’ve previously expressed my own opinions on this, so won’t repeat them here. Other writers have recently looked at this variation in approaches to crowdsourcing. Firstly, Scott Klososky in Technology Story has described a classification for the different types of crowdsourcing:

Voluntary vs. Involuntary – Wikipedia asks for voluntary contributions to its online encyclopedia. By contrast,¬†Google’s image indexing game is an involuntary crowdsourcing scheme to index images by leveraging the brain power of the people playing the game.

Social vs. Commercial РYahoo Answers is an example of a social crowdsourcing operation where the community of users is crowdsourced to provide the underlying product Рwhich is advice.  On the commercial side of this same model is Name This, which pays contributors to offer advice to companies trying to develop brand and company names.

Rewarded vs. Unrewarded – Innocentive is a site that allows companies to post problems that they need solved with a specific bounty that can be earned if someone has a solution. By contrast Dell’s Ideastorm, and Starbucks mystarbucksidea, provide a place for customers to give product advice with no reward other than maybe getting these large organizations to improve their products. Or, as Scott Klososky says “In other words, free market resource leveraging the herd.”

The potential for business to exploit a pool of free labour through crowdsourcing initiatives may not be the bonanza envisaged. Writing in CRM Buyer, Erika Morphy notes that:

“The crowd is beginning to look like an incredibly large, wise, cheap labor pool. Fortunately, it’s also unwieldy, which may be the crowd’s saving grace”.

The article describes a number of examples in the crowdsourcing sphere. LiveOps uses a form of crowdsourcing, which it calls “crowdsourcing BPO” – to schedule the 20,000 home agents that support its call centre operations. Essentially, it sources complex calls to agents that have the expertise to handle the topic. An interesting comment is made by Eckart Walther, SVP of marketplace at LiveOps:

“Almost all crowdsourcing plays I have seen so far use an oversupply of people,” he noted. “That doesn’t work in the real world because it is not practical.” For starters, he said, a company cannot pay all those people — and expecting consistently high-quality work from volunteers is not realistic.

Should crowdsourcing initiatives limit the potential population of contributors to those most likely to make valuable contributions? It depends on the nature of the initiative. Innocentive, an online community where companies can post problems they need solved, is theoretically open to anyone to contribute. However, the complex nature of the problems posted will, in themselves, filter the quality of responses to some degree.

By contrast, a crowdsourcing initiative for technical support may attract contributors whose confidence in offering solutions is not matched by their abilities. The possibility of incorrect solutions being offered is relatively high in such cases. Perhaps in this circumstance, some process for filtering of applicant contributors is appropriate to ensure the integrity of the initiative.

The dream of ‘free labour’ (or ‘free labor’ in U.S. English) envisaged by some businesses may turn out to be a double-edged sword, as a business wishing to leverage the contributions of the masses may have to minimise the difficulty of the challenge, which may have the undesired and paradoxical consequence of lowering the quality of contributions.

A third category of crowdsourcing is where ‘solutions’ are not offered in response to a technical challenge, but to an invitation to contribute visual design or other non-technical contribution. Obvious examples include the crowdsourced clothing enterprise Threadless.com. In this case, there is no need to raise barriers to entry, as the community will collectively vote on the contributors effort, based on their tastes rather than any specific knowledge base.

In all of the above scenarios, the idea of paying all contributors is clearly nonsensical. It is the successful contributors whose efforts should be rewarded. To achieve the objective of leveraging the knowledge of the masses, business must realise that to get the best answers, it is necessary to attract those who can give them, and these are the people who also best know the value of the knowledge they hold.

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