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Navigating a crowdsourcing minefield

September 11, 2014

For every trend there is a downside. For every moment of hype, you’ll find a naysaying contrarian. For every crowdsourced initiative or success story, there is a skeptic.

In the meantime, however, crowdsourcing is here to stay. According to Gartner’s 2014 CIO Agenda, 70 percent of CIOs are keen to change “their technology and sourcing relationships in the next 2 to 3 years.” Massolution, a research firm dedicated to an analysis of the booming crowdsourcing sector, found crowdsourcing service providers (CSPs) increased their revenue by 75 percent from 2010 to 2011—that was, of course, three years ago.  Parallel to that was an 81 percent increase in crowdfunding platform investments in 2012 raised $2.7 billion. Gartner’s Helen Huntley recommends CIOs “objectively analyze the advantages of crowdsourcing to reduce costs, increase innovation and satisfy stakeholder needs quickly.”

Seeing the trend, the public sector wants in on that action. Blasted for lacking interest in or attention to innovation, federal managers and project leads are looking into crowdsourcing as a viable option. Agencies like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have set up public apps for citizens to report weather conditions. The General Services Administration introduced as a way to solicit citizen input for a number of technology-inspired initiatives. Legislators like California lawmaker Mike Gatto (D-Los Angeles) are actually crowdsourcing the drafting of complex legislation in an effort to streamline the process while encouraging citizen input.

The challenges with crowdsourcing, however, are multifold. Crowdsourcing may be an important part of our future, but how do you shepherd it effectively past massive risks and glitches? Even as Huntley admits that it’s nothing new (Toyota, for example, rebranded itself completely in 1936 after pushing a public contest to change the logo), the rules of crowdsourcing have changed dramatically with the insertion of digital tools in the mix. Companies will want to crowdsource as a cost-saver, but they’ll also need to manage the trepidation of employees suddenly displaced or rendered obsolete if an outsourced project is more efficient than reliance on internal talent. Additionally, here’s where bimodal IT gets in the game: keeping the lights on, but encouraging innovation. Still, if governments increase crowdsourcing dramatically, public sector workers could bite back with labor union intervention.

Larger issues loom for crowdsourcing, from problems with security and confidentiality to the potential for highly sensitive projects to become contaminated by hackers. But how realistic is it that such projects go this route? Crowdsourcing could become a trend in enterprise resource planning. Executives in large companies hint that they’ll dip their toes in the water with a tiny app subset to see how it goes—but anything important or proprietary stays on premise for the foreseeable future.

That doesn’t stop IdeaConnection’s Paul Wagorn from outlining more than a few of those problems—and some possible solutions. If organizations crowdsource, then will they complement such efforts with built-in security teams and standards to address those issues?

Organizations will need guidance and expertise that can find safe pathways to successful crowdsourced outcomes. As organizations jump on the crowdsourcing bandwagon, institutional leaders making IT and business decisions will need to determine which units are responsible for which tasks and what level of oversight. Firms with the expert outlook and talent on managing a crowdsourcing model could become critical partners in showing businesses and government agencies how to do crowdsourcing right … before it goes all wrong. 

Charles Ellison is a senior analyst relations strategist for TEKsystems. He keeps close tabs on changes and public policy shaping the innovation space. He is also a former congressional staffer, senior aide to state and local elected officials and an expert advocacy strategist. You can reach him with questions and comments @twoARguys via Twitter.


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