Crowdsourcing is an affordable way to quickly test a slew of ideas and technologies so you can fail early and ultimately pick the best idea.
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Author Thomas Friedman once wrote, "Do you know what my favorite renewable fuel is? An ecosystem for innovation."
He was referring to broader national policy, but the same can be applied to individual companies. Too often, companies fail to develop ecosystems that support innovation and instead rely on sporadic efforts to keep up with industry disruption.
This has always been the case for large organizations, but it has compounded during the last decade because smaller companies that create disruption have declining fixed costs due to cloud, social and mobile technologies. This is especially true of consumer-facing innovation.
Timelines for B2B innovation have also compressed, but still take much longer. In fact, the fastest way for technologies to infiltrate businesses is often by affecting their employees as consumers. Nevertheless, Salesforce.com, founded in 1999, has become the most successful business application and Amazon Web Services, launched in 2006, is the most widely used cloud infrastructure provider.
With consumer-related innovation leading the way, what's a business to do? If you are serving consumers, it's expected that you will have world-class technology that rivals the best of Silicon Valley. If you are a B2B company, do you just wait?
While it's popular for people working in technology to invoke the necessity to act, reality is more nuanced than that. Evaluating the what, how much or how disruptive your investment in technology should be requires a process that 1) lowers the cost of evaluation to broaden the number of ideas you can try, and 2) increases the clarity of outcomes. Without this, you are left just throwing darts.
Crowdsourcing has been pulled into more of these discussions recently as an inexpensive way to help companies explore more innovative ideas. For instance, a company could crowdsource prototypes of the best ideas coming out of their brainstorming sessions on making the workforce more mobile instead of just picking one to try out. Or it could use a crowdsourced community to solve a big-data problem such as how to route trucks or how to position the solar collectors on your International Space System without having to invest in teams of researchers.
In lieu of crowdsourcing, companies often feel constrained in proving concepts they consider innovative or new. Because of this, they think focusing their efforts and being selective is a key part of the process. While focus is important in executing on an idea, too much focus in the early part of the idea funnel can be harmful. It leads to ideas that are closer to the status quo and subject to senior management bias.
With crowdsourcing marketplaces -- such as Tongal, Poptent, CloudSpokes and Innocentive -- communities help explore and prototype multiple ideas more efficiently by drawing on the best designers, developers, analytics experts and scientists from all over the world. In addition, because crowdsourcing participants pick what to work on, they bring a personal interest that matches the task well. As organizations grow, it becomes harder to find the exact resources and skills for the project at hand.
Applying these crowdsourcing markets to prototyping ideas lets you see conceptually what you are trying to do. Also, it gets the business and technology sides of your organization on the same page about the expectations for your idea.
For example, a consumer products company wanted potential customers to experience what it would be like to wear their colored contact lenses. By using crowdsourcing, they were able to show in just days a working app that helped the company understand how it could be done technically and what the experience would be like for the customer. This specific prototype helped align the company's tech and business teams and has been applied to other initiatives.
In basketball, teams practice very specific scenarios -- like what to do with time running out on the clock -- because in a game the stakes are too high not to be prepared. Similarly, by widening your innovation funnel through crowdsourcing you can try and fail in a low-cost way and make sure your company delivers on great ideas when it counts the most.
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