Crowdsourcing your next innovation

Many companies claim to be listening to their customers. For some, this means asking diners to complete a customer satisfaction forms after a meal or for a caller to complete a survey after a call to a contact center: for others, listening means tracking their customers online behaviour.  This information should be used to improve the customer experience or enhance their product offerings.

Companies now have an uprecendented ability to leverage the thoughts and feelings of the customers and the general public. It's called crowdsourcing. 

Take crowdfunding sites, for instance. With crowdfunding, people can get involved in crowdsourced programmes as creators, contributors or collaborators, and can perform these functions in combination. They can be invested in the outcome or just in the process. Opportunities cut across geographical, cultural and age barriers. They can benefit all organisations from large multinationals to small local firms, from vast corporations to public-minded and social employees in the health, education, government and social sectors. Those crowdfunding product designs benefit from real time customer feedback and (if successfully funded) the capacity to build products to order.

A wide talent pool. The power of digital crowds enables enterprises to benefit from a wide talent pool that extends beyond that provided by their own staff. Converting new ideas into tangible products, ensuring products are fit for purpose, even developing new ideas are all areas that benefit from the crowd mentality.

For example:

New product ideas. We’ve already grown familiar with new product ideas emerging from crowdfunding initiatives such as Kickstarter, IndieGogo or Crowdcube, but the crowd can make a useful intellectual contribution to enterprise innovation, too. A case in point of this kind of application of this is seen in Unilever’s Open Innovation programme which poses a series of challenges and invites people to present their own ideas on how to solve them.

Beta tests. Software companies have engaged in product testing via the crowd for a long time – even Apple offers public beta access to significant system software upgrades. It is already traditional for games developers to motivate hardened games players to test early releases of games using a ‘pay per bug’ system. The crowd-based software testing model now supports mobile app and other forms of software development. In each case the testing group consists of volunteers from among the crowd.

Knowledge pools. Because crowd sourced testers come from more widely varied backgrounds than traditional consultants or professionals, they are arguably better at spotting some of the real world usability issues the experts may miss. If required, specific user groups can be recruited through crowdsourcing testers with inducements, such as the traditional ‘pay per bug’ system. These models of crowd-based software beta testing comprise a strategic approach any company developing software can use, regardless of its size.

Crowd outsourcing. One way to think about Web services like Upwork and Elance is to see them as a modern labour exchange in which those with the skills offer them to a global base of employers who may need them. They can also be seen as ways enterprise users of any size can tap into a vast talent pool in order to find the skills they need at budgets they can afford for specific projects.

From crowdsourced to open source

Digital services and devices generate data as they are used. This crowdsourced data, generated by users of services, has huge potential and can itself be made available to third parties. While it is possible to monetize this data, there are also advantages to making it freely available to others for use in their own services: Public transit authorities frequently release information concerning the whereabouts of buses, trains, trams, hire bikes and more, for use in third party apps and services.

Taking things a step further, Google’s Waze is a driver focused turn-by-turn navigation service accessed using smartphone apps and a Web portal which crowdsources information from users. This crowd sourced information can be more up to date than competitors (including its own Google Maps), making it more efficient at guiding driver’s through existing traffic problems in the locality.  Everyone can use services like these, long time users of GPS routing services such as couriers are an obvious beneficiary.

Crowdsourcing for public good

Companies can engage with crowdsourcing models that focus on social welfare to help them generate a product or service. Third party services like openIDEO which tries to ‘solve big challenges for social good’ can help by providing a hub for projects and a structured approach to finding solutions. Projects have sponsors, and initiatives go through a range of phases including idea development, refinement, and feedback.

One sector in which crowdsourcing promises to generate significant results is health research, where more information is often better. Between 2006 and 2010 the UK’s Biobank initiative recruited 500,000 people aged 40-69 to undergo a series of general health checks. Many agreed to further monitoring over time, with more than 50,000 recently wearing activity monitors to generate massive 8 million hours of research data. Apple’s introduction of Research Kit for iOS means such large scale test groups are easier to assemble than ever before. Research on these massive data sets could help future healthcare in terms of disease prevention, treatment and identifying successful cure.

Boundless opportunity

As digital processes extend across daily life, crowdsourcing is still evolving and many companies are wary of it. Despite the reticence the opportunity the crowd provides to identify new approaches and ideas to common problems provides enterprises of any size the chance to become smarter, working more laterally, dynamically and expansively than ever before.


Sandra Vogel

Sandra has been writing about technology for more than 15 years, with books, newspaper columns and a myriad of articles published. Prior to that she was a senior information management professional in the charity sector. She enjoys discovering how technology can make our lives and our work more effective at all levels, and in sharing what she learns with others.