By Chris Nial
Crowdsourcing, a merge of the words “crowd” and “outsourcing”, is a product of the unique work culture that exists in our world today – a work culture in which space and time place no limitations on who we work with, when, and how.
Matt H. Evans, in his article “The Power of Crowdsourcing”, explains the concept best: “Crowdsourcing taps into the global world of ideas, helping companies work through a rapid design process. You outsource to large crowds (hence the word: crowdsourcing) in an effort to make sure your products or services are right. What makes crowdsourcing so powerful is the broad participation that takes place at relatively no costs. Solutions are generated from volunteers or freelancers who get paid only if you use their ideas.”
Oxford English Dictionary provides a more bare-bones definition: “The practice of obtaining needed services, ideas, or content by soliciting contributions from a large group of people and especially from the online community rather than from traditional employees or suppliers.”
Author Jeff Howe, one of the first people to use and establish this term, observes that the concept of crowdsourcing depends essentially on the fact that because it is an open call to an undefined group of people, it gathers those who are most fit to perform tasks, solve complex problems and contribute with the most relevant and fresh ideas.
At Baird’s CMC, a communications and business strategy consulting firm that I work with, we recently tried crowdsourcing for a large research project. We called out to possible contributors by posting an open call on our website: “Share your insights with us for a big project we’re currently working on. The topic? The future of European overseas development assistance. What are you hearing and what do you think?”
It was amazing to go about a project in this way, and we received some wonderful insights from people we may never have heard from had we only relied upon traditional methods of research.
Funnily enough, though crowdsourcing is a uniquely 21st century concept, the first example can be traced back to 1857. In a book titled The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary by Simon Winchester, the author relates how the dictionary was first conceived of and created: “The undertaking of the scheme [the OED], he said, was beyond the ability of any one man. To peruse all of English literature – and to comb the London and New York newspapers and the most literate of the magazines and journals – must be instead ‘the combined action of many’. It would be necessary to recruit a team – moreover, a huge one – probably comprising hundreds and hundreds of unpaid amateurs, all of them working as volunteers.” A 70-year project, the OED was finally a collaboration of more than 6 million submissions – now that’s quite a testament to the power of crowdsourcing!