Crowdsourcing's next big leap

The crowdsourcing buzzword has come long way since its inception in 2006 and with corporates keen to use the trend as a business accelerator curation and collaboration could be the next big things in harnessing the power of the crowd.

The crowdsourcing buzzword has come a long way since its inception in 2006. The portmanteau of “crowd” and “outsourcing” may still be subject to criticism but harnessing the power of the crowd, and the enormous potential of our interconnected world, isn’t seen as a grubby fad anymore.

If anything, the phenomenon is evolving at a rapid rate with crowdsourcing now part of mainstream business, and some of the best and brightest in the start-up space making a name for themselves in the space.

It wasn’t that long ago that the mere mention of the crowd-sourced market place was enough to send professionals, especially graphic designers, into frenzy. Outsourcing a job done by professionals to the mob on the internet was heresy and the business model was derided as an engine of exploitation.

While some of the criticism is justified, its relevance is somewhat limited and certainly shouldn’t apply to the overall trend. Graphic designers have a genuine gripe about crowdsourcing diminishing the value of the service they provide to their clients and the exploitative potential of ‘on spec’ nature of crowdsourcing platforms. The “on spec” term, which means designers doing work without the prospect of payment, remains incendiary.

However, platforms like DesignCrowd and 99designs are growing from strength to strength, and their continued success is ample proof that ethical considerations aren’t hurting the appetite for crowd-sourced platforms - both on the demand and supply side of the equation.     

The bigger picture

While online labour marketplaces, at their core, remain a cost-efficiency lever for businesses a bigger picture is starting to emerge.

Consultancy firm Interbrand’s last global survey of the world’s most powerful brands might not have held too many surprises when it comes to the names. But interestingly, nine out of the top ten brands were harnessing crowdsourcing in one form of another.

On top of that, this year has seen significant uptick in partnerships between major corporations and crowdsourcing outfits, the most notable of which from an Australian perspective was the tie-up between consultancy firm Deloitte and data mining platform Kaggle. 

The Deloitte-Kaggle deal is a solid indicator of not just how tantalising the crowd sourcing solutions model has become for mainstream business, but also that the use case for crowdsourcing is well and truly starting to expand. Crowdsourcing is shifting beyond the realm of labour management and aligning itself with a range of other sectors – marketing, innovation and data mining.  

Rand Leeb-du Toit, a research director on the executive leadership and innovation research team at Gartner, reckons that while it’s still too early to say that crowdsourcing has gone prime time, there’s no doubt that the trend has made rapid inroads into corporate consciousness.

As the use cases for crowd sourcing start to proliferate, Du-Toit says that the maturity of the trend is also manifested in the recent boom in crowd funding. While still nascent, at least from a regulatory point of view, Leeb du-Toit says crowd funding campaigns provide immediate customer validation and also provide access to an unparalleled funding opportunity.

“The fact that we have Kickstarter announcing that it is about to make its service available in Australia and New Zealand is a good sign and will provide a lot of benefit, especially for our video game development industry,” du-Toit says.

Curating the crowd – the next step

Arguably one of the biggest players in the space is 99designs, a business that started life as a spinoff of the SitePoint forums, and has since spread its footprint across the globe. After setting up shop in the US and Germany, 99designs last month dipped its toe in the Latin American market with the acquisition of Brazilian outfit LogoChef.

The acquisition comes on the back of the launch of Swiftly, which is 99designs’ latest move to broaden its design product offering.

Swiftly, which enables customers to get their existing designs tweaked for a flat fee of $15 by a hand-picked selection of designers, isn’t crowdsourcing in the strictest sense of the word.

However, it does represent the next logical step for a company like 99designs, a step that leverages the crowd, takes a curated subset of its existing community of designers and packages it into a bespoke value-add service.

The emphasis on rapid design fixes instead of pure design creation just wouldn’t be feasible unless 99designs had a rusted on client base to target or a vibrant pool of designers to leverage off. 

99designs CEO Patrick Llewellyn says that curation could well be the foundation on which the future of crowdsourcing is built on.

“What we have learnt is that a large crowd is awesome for solving some problems really, really well but it’s not the perfect way to do everything,” Llewellyn says.

“We are working really hard to develop a richer set of tools so that customers can connect with designers any way they want to.”

The greater intimacy and efficiency could well be the model followed by crowdsourcing design marketplaces – increasing the reach of the platform is a worthy goal but increasing the depth of the platform could be the next useful step for customers, designers and outfits like 99designs and DesignCrowd.

The great big problem solver

The crowdsourcing trend has always been linked to the idea of open innovation and that’s one reason why the message of crowdsourcing as a business accelerator is resonating so powerfully in the corporate circles.

DesignCrowd’s chief operating officer Chris McNamara says that the critical first step in making that scenario a reality is to shift the focus from individuals solving individual problems to a more collaboration based model.

“Groups of people will be engaged to solve more complex problems and the power of the crowd sourcing engine will be used to create crack virtual teams that you can build locally,” McNamara says.

Businesses know they need to innovate and therein lies the opportunity for crowd sourcing platforms and there is no doubt that it will be used to solve a far greater range of problems. Curation and collaboration look likely to become two popular features of the lexicon of crowdsourcing.