Friday, April 24, 2009

What do the crowds know about innovation?

Last night I had a unique privilege to facilitate a discussion forum on Crowdsourcing and Wisdom of Crowds. We'd worked up quite a panel of experts, which included the head of Dell's IdeaStorm application, a member of IBM's Idea Jam team, a member of Cisco's social media team and a professor from UNC's MBA program.

Our goal was to identify the different strategies and techniques these firms were using for crowdsourcing and to understand when and where crowdsourcing was effective. I think I learned more about these tools and techniques in an hour and a half than I have in the last few years.

Each of these firms approaches crowdsourcing in very different ways. Dell uses primarily an open forum - IdeaStorm - to collect ideas from a wide array of its clients. The site has been in operation for just over two years and has collected over 11,000 ideas, of which over 300 have been implemented by Dell.

IBM's Idea Jam is a slightly different model, using an event-driven and topic-driven approach to generate ideas. IBM uses the Jams internally and offers the service to its clients as well. The Jam typically becomes more of a conversation thread than a true idea generation technique. In one Jam several years ago thousands of ideas where generated and over 36,000 comments attached to those ideas.

Cisco's method so far has been to leverage communities and discussion forums, and to assess the will of the crowd by the feedback and comments within specific communities and forums. These are somewhat smaller forums, more tightly focused around specific needs or products.

All of these approaches help gather ideas from the crowd, and also serve as a trend spotting opportunity as well.

There are several things to think about when using these techniques, however. The first is that as a general rule, as the number of participants increase in any crowdsourcing technique, the more likely it is that ideas will become more incremental in nature. That's because the group exerts unintentional pressure on the participants, and really different or radical ideas are ignored. Second, these programs can generate a LOT of ideas, and working through them to find what the panelists called the Golden Nuggets can be a manual process.

Another compelling reason for using these tools is to demonstrate to your employees, customers and business partners that you are interested in their ideas and are listening and reacting. In fact this was the original and primary goal of IdeaStorm. I think of this as a "social good" - perhaps hard to quantify but very beneficial for any firm that can establish a good crowdsourcing technique and demonstrate the follow up.

The net takeaways from the meeting were that if your firm sets the right expectations and has reasonable expectations about the results of a crowdsourcing exercise (most ideas will be incremental) and understands the value of a program will be more than just the ideas generated, your team can create a steady stream of ideas that will be beneficial and create goodwill with your customers. Just understand that these programs aren't free. If the examples discussed last night are indicative, and I think they are, you may need methods to review hundreds if not thousands of ideas.

I have a presentation that we compiled from our discussions and will share that on the blog as I get the OK from the participants. It turns out that in some cases, all of us are smarter than some of us, but not necessarily more disruptive.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 5:05 AM


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I miss a considerable fraction: third parties that offer crowdsourcing innovation or innovation intermediaries. Examples are Innocentive in the scientific community or Idea Crossing and Atizo for more consumer oriented platforms. They have techniques to improve the quality of the ideas, even with a great number of participants. For companies like Dell or IBM publicity is a core motivation - intermediaries concentrate on the innovation.

9:33 AM  

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