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Calling On The Crowd

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A couple of revolutions down the line, no one is willing to argue with the wisdom of the crowd. Remember that in a caged bed somewhere, the once president of Egypt lies sick and grumpy, awaiting his fate. I'm sure he is unlikely to forget, even for a minute, who put him there. Elsewhere in the world, a country has decided to play it safe and get its people to create their own constitution. Iceland has taken the ideas of ordinary citizens to work out laws that will govern them. Isn't that, after all, what democracy is?

It took world leaders quite a while to come to terms with the way social media can harness crowd opinion and action. It's easy to see what took so long. They just didn't see it coming. And when it came, they didn't understand it. And when they understood it, they couldn't control it. Kingdoms are easy. Social media is not.

Today, governments and leaders are taking great care to be on social networks, where the crowds are. As we know from Barack Obama's much-publicised Twitter townhall.

Crowdsourcing is democracy narrowed down to specifics. Or collaboration gone to scale. In a sense, crowdsourcing is just trendy talk for a lot of stuff that has already been happening for a long time. Wikipedia is crowdsourcing. So are the SMS polls our news channels are so fond of. The causes that are taken up on social networks are also crowdsourcing, though they often end up sourcing only noise — and six digits of followers. That businesses should want to go to the crowd or employees to source ideas or solutions is a no-brainer. It not only draws in more ideas than you know what to do with, it buys in people so they are more understanding and tolerant towards problems and have a sense of ownership for implementation. With customers, it builds immense loyalty.

Now that crowdsourcing has bubbled to the surface, businesses are beginning to see the point, if it all. Ideation is sneaking its way out of the swanky innovation centre to the Twitter stream. Organisations are also becoming more social inside, encouraging employees to use collaboration platforms where they come up with clever ideas, until someone puts them in charge of making these ideas work, and the fun ends. In what has become crowdsourcing history, coffee chain Starbucks put up a portal, mystarbucksidea.com, calling for customers to give ideas for new products and solutions. Like a great big open suggestion box. Visit the site any time, and you'll always find fresh ideas, including a slightly nauseating one that there should be coconut milk frappes. In similar crowdsourcing formats, ideas are rewarded.

Coca-Cola has reportedly just spent a largish sum of money buying up a crowdsourcing-based firm that will help it draw emerging music talent from across the world. I'm sure we'll hear some of that soon enough.

Websites crowdsource content, fundraisers crowdsource funds, disaster management crowdsource help, journalists crowdsource authentic news and reactions, and so on. Everybody does it. But now, some startups are trying to make crowdsourcing their business. The Q&A site, Quora, is entirely based on answers on various subject domains from a crowd of "experts". For the most part, the answers are not easily found elsewhere. A Brazilian startup, Ledface, is calling on the crowd to put up ordinary everyday problems that others in the crowd will solve. What value the company is adding is not clear. Brainstorm, from a company called Intuit, is claiming to be able to help an organisation source ideas from its employees, prioritise them, take decisions and help action the ones selected. I guess the management can safely go on a permanent holiday.

Another startup, TaskRabbit, is getting people or "TaskPosters" to put up tasks they can't do themselves. A TaskRabbit then emerges from the crowd and does the job — for a price set through mutual agreement. It's a good thing they aren't in India or I'd be doing less than I do to begin with.

In the belief that open is good, the crowd has become the new poster child for everything — from policies to justice, from thinking out of the box to coming up with fancy designs. But companies thinking of crowdsourcing should do their homework. The crowd can be unpredictable. Ideas can be more out-of-the-box than you can handle. Every challenge cannot be crowdsourced, and when it's selected, must be posed appropriately. Moreover, when you do go to the crowd, you are accountable to them for the selection, development and outcome. All crowds are also not born equal. You need to understand the crowd's motivation before you engage.

mala(at)pobox(dot)com, (at)malabhargava on Twitter

(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 12-09-2011)