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As the name suggests, crowdsourcing is a method of generating ideas, opinions, or micro-tasks from a group or ‘crowd’ of people, often with a shared interest. For example, Google Maps relies on its users to report traffic collisions or provide information on public transportation, such as accessibility. Meanwhile, LEGO allows fans to submit and vote on ideas for new models and Zooniverse enables researchers around the world to tap into the data-crunching skills of ‘citizen scientists'.

Usually, crowdsourcing is carried out online using websites, software tools or social media, but can include in-person events, such as hackathons.

It’s not to be confused with crowdfunding, where groups of people provide money to support a business idea or good cause.


A Short History of Crowdsourcing

Although the term ‘crowdsourcing’ is recent (allegedly it was coined in a Wired article by Jeff How during 2006), the concept has been around far longer.

In fact, one of the earliest examples of crowdsourcing comes from 1567, when King Philip II of Spain offered a cash prize for solving the issue of calculating the longitude of a vessel while at sea! This was followed by further prizes across the years, until the problem was finally cracked in 1773, following the offer of a reward by the UK government.

The next time you open a can of beans or soup, just remember that that’s down to Napoleon’s offer of 12,000 Francs to improve on food preservation in 1795. The technique used by the winner, Nicolas François Appert, still forms the basis of canning techniques today.

Fast-forward to 1884 and over 800 volunteers cataloged words for the first version of the Oxford English Dictionary. An individual could not have carried out a task of this size, but a group of individuals passionate about language were able to.

But it was in more recent times, thanks to the advent of the internet, that crowdsourcing really took off. SETI@Home was set up by the University of California in 1999, where users could install a program that scanned for signs of extraterrestrial life whilst their computer was idling. Meanwhile, Wikipedia was launched to the world in 2001 – enabling individuals to contribute their knowledge to a global source of information.


What can Crowdsourcing be used for?

Crowdsourcing has become such a part of everyday life that we barely notice it – from providing reviews on travel apps to voting for new products on social media.

In the business world, some potential uses of crowdsourcing include:

  • Generating ideas
  • Problem-solving
  • Product development
  • Engaging consumers
  • Cost savings
  • Software development


Crowdsourcing for Innovation

Crowdsourcing enables companies to tap into the experience of people from across their business. So, rather than relying on a select group of individuals with a narrow view, the doors are opened wide, and companies can ask the opinions of a far more diverse group. For example, if you want to improve the processes within your manufacturing plan, why not ask the people carrying out those processes and creating your products?

According to Forbes, actively engaging individuals in crowdsourcing for innovation can improve employee engagement, as week as breaking up internal monopolies. This is especially important in the current climate, with 38% of the UK workforce looking to leave their jobs, as engagement improves employee retention.


The Advantages of Crowdsourcing

By using crowdsourcing to generate ideas, rather than more traditional techniques such as suggestion boxes, businesses can benefit from:

  • Generating more ideas – having more heads considering a problem naturally results in a greater number of suggestions.
  • Save on time and money – bringing people together digitally takes up fewer resources than having dedicated meetings and time set aside for ideation.
  • Greater diversity – not just in terms of gender, race, and disability, but also diversity of personality, job roles, and thought. Having a wider range of viewpoints will provide you with a more holistic view of solutions to your business problems.
  • Employee engagement – using collaborative tools such as innovation software enable you to tap into collaborative features, such as voting and gamification, which are designed to boost employee engagement. This, in turn, can give greater meaning to individuals’ work and improve retention.


Crowdsourcing with Hackathons

While most examples of crowdsourcing take place virtually, another method of sourcing ideas from a group is hackathons. Although hackathons can take place online, most consist of in-person events that are dedicated to solving a specific challenge or create innovations.

They provide employers with a focused session for generating ideas from a specific group of individuals and give participants the chance to network, develop their skills and enjoy the challenge of solving a problem.


Find Out More

Looking to tap into your teams’ ideas with crowdsourcing? Check out our articles on getting the most from ideas generation:


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