August 09, 2007
Is Crowdsourcing Innovation's Future?

There's been an explosion of Web 2.0 creativity over the last two years, with thousands of freelance developers and shops around the world adding daily to a burgeoning inventory of cool tools and web services.
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2007 is the Year of the Mashup, says Business Week. Hop over to Newsweek/MSNBC and we're in the Year of the Widget. Whatever they call it, digital screens large and small suddenly have more cool dashboards, handy web services and must-have plug-ins than anyone can keep track of.

How did this come about? Well, in 2005 an amazing thing happened. Google, Yahoo, eBay, Amazon and other major Web brands started crowdsourcing. They opened up formerly proprietary code for some of their key API's (application programming interfaces) to the world's freelance developers. Realizing how much global creative energy there is to tap, and how limited their own resources were by comparison, these companies took a 180 degree turn on the "not invented here" freeway and struck a blow for raw, rampant innovation. Their assumption was that others would think of things they might not. And they were right.

The happy result is that now any teenager in Finland, Slovenia or Akron can download the API's for GoogleMaps, Flickr, eBay (and a growing list of other major web players) and start building and releasing their own cool mashups that incorporate the shared code. And a variety of widget engines allow developers to design great interfaces that supplant the tired old browser page for many everyday functions we used to pull from My Yahoo.

The momentum now appears unstoppable. More mashups, more dashboard, web and mobile widgets roll out each week.

Widgets bring us targeted information, on-demand services and other goodies without our ever having to find or load a webpage. Widget interfaces are smaller and more functional than a standard, screen-hogging browser page, and they load faster. I have a cool astronomy widget that helps me map the night sky wherever I am and whatever hour it is.

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I also like mashup sites like zillow.com. At Zillow I can watch my home's value float up and down as home prices fluctuate around me. It's all mapped for me, and yes, Zillow has a widget for my mobile phone screen.

In 2005, writer James Surowiecki called the intelligent principle behind open-source innovation "The Wisdom of Crowds". Then Wired's Jeff Howe coined the companion verb: "crowdsource". So now we have all the words we need to help the concept lodge in our collective Mind. What does the sea-change mean for companies with decades of history in old school, siloed product development?
The core mindset shift is simple.

Everyone in an organization is potentially a source of ideas and ongoing developmental guidance... IF you let them be.

It makes good sense. Install the culture and the processes that let everyone have a stake in the creative life of the company and you get a much broader platform for innovation.

Easy to say; harder to do. Sustaining a culture of innovation over time requires well-thought out group creativity "rituals" - collaborative events and processes that eliminate the traditional line between "creatives" and "non-creatives" and encourage anyone and everyone to step forward.

Allowing equal access doesn't mean everyone is equally creative, though. There are exceptionally creative people on earth and maybe, if you're lucky, in your organization. But most people aren't idea dynamos like Thomas Edison or DaVinci. Fortunately, mega-minds like them aren't the world's only source of breakthrough ideas.

All it takes is one person thinking up a single breakthrough idea to send humanity in a new direction. Think Alexander Graham Bell, Jonas Salk, or Crick and Watson. Does anyone need to be reminded that Einstein was a patent clerk before he became a paradigm-shifting physicist?


The central creed everyone must believe in an innovation culture is that a breakthrough idea could lurk anywhere in the organization. A simple 360 degree distribution of creative respect can work wonders all by itself.

At the heart of the Web 2.0 revolution lies the liberating spirit of widespread collaboration. User-generated sites like Wikipedia and Digg tap into the wisdom of crowds to aggregate, edit and polish information. Wikipedia, now at almost almost 8 million topic entries, is by far the largest and most consulted encyclopedic reference on the Web. Amazingly, most Wikipedia entries are more than just pretty good.

Crowdsourced projects and products can also be competitive. One renowned open-source project, Firefox's web browser, has an army of volunteer developers building add-ons for it. This steady surge of nifty extras is why Firefox's market share keeps rising ever closer to Microsoft's dominant Internet Explorer browser. In some European Union countries, Firefox's market share is now 40-45 percent.

A company that welcomes crowdsourced innovation raises the odds of two things happening. Not only can more breakthrough ideas arise in-house, but it's more likely they'll be recognized by at least one other champion rather than being blocked, lost or dismissed. By endorsing crowdsourcing methods, a company retires out-dated "not invented here" attitudes that used to bury or water down great ideas in traditional siloed workplaces.

Companies that can afford to seek ideas outside their workforce and firewall gain even more - a potentially infinite pool of innovators. The author of the Linux operating system, Linus Torvalds, opened up his kernal to the world's developers in the early 1990's. Netscape did the same in 1998. Today, BMW's Virtual Innovation Agency invites customers to send in their innovation ideas and offers prizes of up to 60,000 EUR. And at Eli Lilly's Innocentive, "seeker" companies like Proctor & Gamble can post a challenge to a community of 120,000 + "solvers" registered at the website.

Crowdsourcing is young and it's future is still uncertain, but there's already evidence that crowdsourced products have more of the features and functionality people want. The likely cause is the sheer size of the crowd pouring ideas into a product's evolution. There's an inevitable diversity of views built in to any sizable crowd. At a certain point, the distinctions between product developers and typical customers have to start blurring. When they do, crowdsourced product development is almost like getting customer feedback up front, before the sale.

With such benefits emerging, it's no wonder that so many people are pleading Congress for the internet to be kept neutral for content sites and aggregators like Digg, Wikipedia and Facebook. With so many minds able to network together now, crowdsourcing enables humans to collaborate on a scale no one could have dreamed of fifty years ago.

And it comes not a moment too soon. Hopefully, over the next few years, new online tools will emerge to gather and develop global warming and alternative energy solutions from around the planet. We'll likely see the release of hundreds of widgets and mashups to help us conserve energy, nudge our households and businesses toward carbon neutrality, and re-engineer our global energy grid.

If that's a peek into what we might accomplish as a species having to make tough economic choices about our future, then we all have a stake in James Surowiecki being right about the wisdom of crowds.

Links:
Jeff Howe's original Wired article on crowdsourcing.

Google Uses Crowdsourcing To Make Maps in India

Posted by Tim Moore at August 9, 2007 06:08 PM

Comments

There's a thing i'd like to add to your excellent rundown of issues: for such communities of practice to develop it is essential that social networks be open, collaborative and reciprocal in how they're set up. As we are growing towards maturity, this is a lesson companies are learning the hard way, at the moment. For instance, i've been involved with community marketing for Rebtel, including the deployment of their widget in Facebook: the first thing that needed to happen there was introducing the experience of being a networked community within Rebtel itself...it's that experience that often produces the tipping point.

Posted by: alex de jong at August 12, 2007 02:21 AM

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