Crowdsourcing: Hanging Out with All the Right People

According to researchers at Penn State, crowdsourcing works best when the right type of crowd is matched up with particular types of crowdsourcing projects.

According to researchers at Penn State, crowdsourcing works best when the right type of crowd is matched up with particular types of crowdsourcing projects. For instance, for the website, bird watchers submit observations and sightings, such as this Ovenbird spotted in Atlanta.

Image courtesy of Flickr user geno k.

Can crowdsourcing help your business?

According to Penn State researchers, crowds have characteristics that can be more or less useful depending on the organizational problem at hand.

For instance, Dell’s IdeaStorm launched in 2007, has encouraged current and potential customers to make recommendations on enhancements to Dell's products and services. As of November 2012, the crowd had generated 18,000 ideas, of which Dell has implemented 500.

In another example,, a collaboration between Cornell University and The National Audobon Society enlists bird watchers from across North America to document the presence or absence of specific species of birds. This crowd of bird watchers has submitted millions of observations.

While Dell and both utilized crowdsourcing, they use different types of crowds to solve two very different problems.

For businesses interested in solving problems with crowds, not just any crowd will do. But what crowd is right?

The Penn State study, “Hanging with the right crowd: matching crowdsourcing need to crowd characteristics,” offers specifics on how to match organizational needs with the “right” crowd. The study’s authors, Lee Erickson, a Ph.D. candidate at Penn State University College of Information Science and Technology and former CEO of Erickson Barnett Marketing Agency, along with Irene Petrick, a senior lecturer of Information Science and Technology at Penn State, and Eileen Trauth, a professor in the same department, identified four areas in which crowds are commonly used to solve problems: marketing/branding, improving productivity; product/service innovation and knowledge capture.

The researchers also identified three characteristics of crowds that can be optimized for each type of business problem:

  • The knowledge of the crowd: The crowd’s collective knowledge might be general or specialized; situational or domain specific; or about products/services
  • The value of the crowd: What makes the population of the crowd valuable? Is it the sheer volume of people contributing to a project? Is the diversity of the crowd important? Or, is the variety of what the crowd knows of value?
  • The location of the crowd: Does it matter if the crowd is internal or external to the organization?

The chart below, reproduced from the Penn State study, offers a framework for how to cultivate crowds that can help solve business problems.

How can this framework be applied in practice? Go back to the Dell example. Dell’s IdeaStorm was an open call to current and potential customers for ideas to enhance its product, so this crowdsourcing effort falls under the chart’s third column: “Product/Service Innovation.” Applying that framework, then, Dell would want a crowd that offers the characteristics of Crowd Knowledge (product/service; specialized; domain expertise), Crowd Value (diversity; large numbers; distributed knowledge) and Location (external).

On the other hand, in the example, Cornell and the Audubon Society enlisted a crowd for the purpose of simply gathering data. It’s a crowdsourcing initiative that falls under the chart’s fourth column: "Knowledge Capture." Applying the framework, the desired crowd would embody characteristics which are slightly different than those that Dell needed: Crowd Knowledge (product/service; specialized; domain expertise), Crowd Value (distributed knowledge) and Location (internal and external).

The authors conclude their paper by stressing that “gaining a better understanding of the link between organizational need and desired crowd characteristics” is key to the theoretical and practical application of crowdsourcing.

3 Comments On: Crowdsourcing: Hanging Out with All the Right People

  • Boris Chu | January 20, 2013

    I think crowdsourcing is a great way to collaborate on many different things; I would usually use crowdsourcing from getting ideas from customers and get a better understanding of what the customers need and want. I would want to get a clearer picture of that chart though it looks interesting although I don’t quite understand it.

  • Crowdsourcing Quality Articles: Knowing the Right Keys to Turn | November 3, 2014

    […] Finding the right workers makes all the difference in the outcome of your project. Not only do you need to locate the right group, but you need to identify the quality writers in that group. For example, if you need product descriptions or blogs about video games, then you should have no problem identifying a group of workers that are interested in your work. However, identifying the quality writers in that group greatly increases the quality of the content you receive. […]

  • Colin Pinto | August 18, 2015

    I found the chart of the framework for applying to a crowdsourcing project immensely valuable. I’m working on a project to improve heart health, looking at the psychosocial aspects as well as diet.

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