Welcome to the power of the crowd

LEGO customers are product developers. Often discarding provided instructions, they seek to build original creations using blueprints drawn from the imagination.

A proud and inspired bunch, they’ve been sharing these creations with the online community since the birth of social media, measuring their work against their peers.

Recently, LEGO took notice and opted to put this community to work, for free. The company built a platform called Cuusoo, which encourages customers to submit projects online for community consideration. If a user likes a project they may click the “support” button; projects that reach 10,000 supporters are then reviewed by LEGO as viable set options. To date, five new sets designed directly by customers can be found in stores and online -- a tremendous opportunity for LEGO lovers.

Cuusoo is just one example of how a growing number of companies are expanding their workforce beyond their organisation to harness the connected consumer. Crowdsourcing, the practice of obtaining services, ideas or content by soliciting contributions from large groups of people -- online communities mostly -- rather than from traditional employees or suppliers, is not new, but is only now being successfully implemented by large enterprises. 

Name almost any challenge -- early detection of driver drowsiness or the predictability of drug targets or electric-only updates to hybrid cars -- and there are likely to already be communities addressing it online. The individuals involved may be around the corner or on the other side of the world; what they have in common is not only the experience and expertise to solve the problem but the motivation, and in many cases the passion, to do so.

The Accenture Technology Vision 2014 identified a growing trend among enterprises to step outside the box and welcome these communities into the collaborative workforce. Whether the task is as simple as data entry or as complex as industrial design, companies are using digital tools including Twitter, Facebook, instant messaging, Wikis, activity streams and proprietary crowdsourcing platforms to collect the insights of passionate, external experts; effectively creating an expanded, truly liquid workforce able to complete projects that may otherwise be too large, expensive or specialised to conduct internally.

By tapping into the motivations of individuals, whether that be through challenges, a sense of purpose, their desire for mastery, or recognition, organisations can harness the enthusiasm of online communities for a minimal amount of risk and expense. However, the use of crowdsourcing requires diligent planning. Tasks must be divided and clear objectives set to prevent inefficiencies and ensure that crowdsourced efforts produce solutions that can be reintegrated into the business.

Crowdsourcing as a marketing widget

Because the expanded workforce is often made up of potential customers, corporate marketing is also experiencing an exponential transformation. The barrier between company and customer is gone -- consumers are being offered a direct voice and suppliers a direct line of sight into how their customers see, use and consume their products. With the right model and the right digital tools, companies can predict with unprecedented accuracy, how the market will react to their products.

Sourcing software expertise

The open-source community is the original expanded workforce, a vast global resource of free labour and software development expertise. Companies that set a strong direction and provide the code to these developers encourage them to take on the role of product innovators, developing solutions to better meet specific consumer needs.

Tackling talent shortages

The expanded workforce is not another form of labour arbitrage. It is not to be confused with employing contractors or temporary labour or moving to an outsourcing arrangement. The channels, structures, and transactions are entirely different -- far more fluid and versatile than any familiar forms of accessing human resources and potentially far more powerful.

Crowdsourcing is still a young business that presents many challenges. Many organisations have dipped a toe in the water with digitally enabled forums such as innovation exchanges and crowdsourcing platforms, but few executives fully grasp the idea of what it means to be able to access a truly liquid pool of premier talent, all coalescing around specific business problems or challenges.

Current markets are being disrupted and new markets discovered by companies employing latent talents or assets made available through digital technology, ie. the expanded workforce. Businesses standing on the sidelines watching and waiting to see what happens next and hoping to grab onto the coattails of the next big idea do so at their own peril. To be relevant in tomorrow’s business landscape, enterprises must experiment, discover, and collaboratively create the next big idea.

Welcome to the power of the crowd.

David Maunsell is the managing director at Accenture Digital, Australia and New Zealand.