Crowdsourcing and sustainability: use with caution
To quote US journalist and critic H.L. Mencken: “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.”
Crowdsourcing is becoming increasingly fashionable as a way to address tough sustainability issues. However it is not well suited to answering strategic questions.
Strategic questions are those that determine the future of your organisation and there are four main reasons why, for these, crowdsourcing is unlikely to be appropriate:
- Crowds do not necessarily have a depth of experience in the specific subject being examined. Corporate strategy needs to be based on data and facts. There are many examples of simple solutions that have cost companies millions – and in some cases have led to bankruptcy
- Crowds are unlikely to understand your exact circumstances. The solution that works for one company may not be the best for another – and to figure this out requires a detailed examination
- Strategic questions never need just an idea. Good ideas, backed up by hard evidence (see point one) and tailored to individual circumstances (point 2) need to have a business case, implementation plan, senior support and project funding to succeed. All of this takes time and money – which cannot be shortcut by deferring to a group
- Strategic solutions need to provide competitive advantage; placing those solutions in the public domain through crowdsourcing immediately negates much of that advantage.
So, no matter how great the temptation, and especially if you don’t have much of a budget (in which case crowdsourcing is all the more tempting), you must resist jumping to crowdsourcing as the answer to all your strategic problems. If you are seeking ‘the next big thing’ for your company, there are many rigorous and structural approaches. This paper entitled Billion Dollar Ideas shows just such an effective and rigorous approach.
So is crowdsourcing of any use?
It can be very useful in the right circumstances. The real strength of crowdsourcing is in developing marketing tactics. That is, how you engage with your customers.
Say you are looking to better educate your customers on your product (a tactical marketing question) then crowdsourcing for ideas – especially where the crowd votes on the ideas to identify a winner – can be effective in coming up with effective tactics. Here you are tapping into the creative side of staff, customers and/or the public to come up with new variations on well-established tools such as advertising and engagement marketing. This is very different from addressing tough strategic issues.
Crowdsourcing can also be used itself as a creative marketing tactic. Take, for example, the company who attracted a huge response to their question “What is a more sustainable solution for sourcing peat?” While this may indeed have generated ideas for more sustainable solutions, it also engaged customers on the subject and helped them to recognise that there are no easy sustainable solutions while demonstrating that the company is concerned about the sustainability of their product.
So even if no good ideas were forthcoming, at least the company demonstrated its concern, thereby enhancing its sustainability reputation.
Do you have any experiences of crowdsourcing? If so please share them with us or let us know your opinion on crowdsourcing and sustainability.