As the use of data analytics, online collaboration, automation, and other technologies continues to proliferate, every organization will be expected to use them as catalysts to optimize their operations. So what’s next? To gain and maintain a competitive advantage, organizations must get more value from a resource they already have: their own people.
Crowdsourcing, as it is widely practiced today, empowers people to make individual contributions to tackle larger problems — crowdfunding a creative project with lots of small investments (e.g., Kickstarter), trying to achieve a scientific breakthrough with hundreds of individual inputs (e.g., citizen science), or trying to forecast the outcome of an event by aggregating multiple people’s individual perspectives (e.g., Iowa Electronic Markets).
In the future, organizations will increasingly apply this same methodology internally to realize these benefits and more. Organizations like Ford Motor Company, Shell, AstraZeneca, Caterpillar, and the U.S. Intelligence Community are already using the power of their crowds to engage employees to create new collective intelligence and insights they would not have had otherwise.
Now consider all of your strategic and operational processes leveraging “the crowd” in some way. Silos would be broken down. Knowledge and skills that exist in one part of the organization could be easily applied in another. An entirely new resource for ongoing innovation would be at your fingertips. And perhaps best of all, internal crowdsourcing engenders engaged, passionate teams that feel like they have “skin in the game.”
Ignore at your own risk.
Organizations may initially find internal crowdsourcing simpler to ignore. After all, implementing internal crowdsourcing requires companies to think in new ways about how work gets done and perhaps even a restructuring of the roles employees are asked to tackle and how they are evaluated and compensated.
So instead, senior leadership will continue to make operational and strategic decisions on their own; centralized research and development incubators will be segregated from the rest of the organization; and employees will operate under the same corporate structures and role descriptions they’ve had for decades.
The closest a regular employee usually gets to having a say in the organization is through internal surveys, idea inboxes, and town halls. Unfortunately, these are all of limited value because they are typically qualitative in nature, do not provide the appropriate incentives or political cover to encourage open and honest dialogue, and are too expensive to occur frequently enough.
Decision makers are ultimately missing out on “ground truth” from the people who are best suited to provide it — those working closest to the customers, products, and services the organization provides.
Activate the power of the crowd.
There are several ways to get started down the path of internal crowdsourcing that can provide immediate value:
- Prioritize ideas with crowdfunding. Follow the Kickstarter model inside your organization. Do a “call for ideas” around a strategic priority or inefficiency you’d like to solve. Let people come up with ideas, then put them up for debate to see what the “crowd” wants to implement. “Crowdfunding” doesn’t have to just be done with money; it could involve people investing time as well.
- Create an ‘early warning system’ for your KPIs. Oftentimes, your company will be off track on achieving a KPI, but no one will publicly acknowledge it. Use crowdsourcing to anonymously solicit ongoing predictions about how the company will perform, then create signals to your decision makers months ahead of time about the storms, or sunshine, that may be approaching.
- Crowdsource tasks. Create a virtual “job jar” for tasks that could potentially be completed by anyone in the organization. People can apply to do the job and be rated based on their performances. Over time, more and more complex business-critical tasks can be put in the job jar for “bid” by anyone in the organization who has proven to have the skills to complete them.
These examples are relatively easy to get started on, but there are still a few questions you must answer to ensure you’re ready to be successful:
- What is the current culture?
Are there broader cultural initiatives — such as improving transparency or increasing employee engagement — that are already occurring? These types of initiatives can “ripen” people’s willingness to try internal crowdsourcing.
- Will your managers buy in?
For an internal crowdsourcing initiative to work, executive leaders and their management teams need to not only champion the process, but to also participate in it, too. If employees know their leaders are receptive to their contributions, they’ll feel an incentive to participate.
- Do you have allies within the company?
Change won’t happen overnight, and some employees simply won’t feel comfortable participating in an initiative that’s beyond their narrowly defined role. Are there liaisons within each department or office location who can serve as points of contact for crowdsourced initiatives?
- Can you use what you learn?
Internal crowdsourcing can produce other insights you can use to your advantage. Who typically comes up with funded ideas? Who are the best predictors? Who are the highest performers on crowdsourced tasks? Are there other ways those attributes could be leveraged?
- Could it be mandatory?
Internal crowdsourcing works when it is included on employee evaluations so people understand it’s a requirement. Contributing to the company’s greater good needs to be an expectation, not an option.
The collective knowledge and experience of people within your organization is a sleeping giant. Internal crowdsourcing increases the value of your investment in your people and imbues the organization with creativity, innovation, maximum foresight, and ruthless efficiency. There’s power in numbers. And if you’re not harnessing the power of the people in your organization, you’re going to lose out to a competitor that is.
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Adam Siegel, co-founder and CEO of Cultivate Labs.