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The Oxford English Dictionary is the classic lagging indicator. Words get into the dictionary only after a critical mass of usage in everyday language and the media has been established. So for the newest additions, which include big data and crowdsourcing, the OED entries help legitimize the terms and give proponents a cause to celebrate.
The OED is a kind of crowdsourced entity itself, relying on writers and speakers to do the heavy lifting of creating and popularizing a word to the point where it warrants admission to the canon. OED editors admit as much, though they credit the modern origin of the term crowdsourcing to journalist and author "Jeff Howe in the American magazine Wired in 2006."
Since then, crowdsourcing and its cousin crowdfunding have become the "in" strategies for business ventures of all types and have evolved to the point where crowdsourcing is now the killer app for cloud and mobile technologies. And the success of enterprise crowdsourcing strategies proves that Don DeLillo was correct 22 years ago when he wrote in Mao II that "the future belongs to crowds."
Crowdsourcing vs. group projects
Crowdsourcing may be relatively new as a word, but the idea behind it is not. Groups and project teams have existed for thousands of years. In technology, we have chewed up and spit out terms such as groupware and knowledge management. What we have now is a logical extension of those ideas to the cloud, mobile and social media platforms that are coming to dominate our computing environments.
What makes crowdsourcing different is the emphasis it puts on the relationship between the crowd and the task to be accomplished. While workgroups or teams know and can relate to one another, most of the members of crowds don't know one another at all and have nothing in common other than, say, a desire to help bring the new Veronica Mars movie to life via Kickstarter.
There's also the factor of rewarding the crowd for participating. The success of a team is usually its own reward (perhaps with a bonus if you're lucky), but enterprise crowdsourcing contributors should get something tangible -- money, free stuff, discounts.
For example, I wrote recently of what gapNsnap founder Richard Beaver calls a crowd-commerce service, based on a model in which shoppers use their phones to snap pictures of out-of-stock items -- e.g., gaps in store shelves. "The model is, basically, collect information on out-of-stocks when they happen, which we are doing today," Beaver said. "In the near future, we'll enable the app to have an interaction with the customer at the point of dissatisfaction. 'I wanted this product, what are you going to do for me? Are you going to give me a coupon? Is a competitor going to give me a coupon to switch to their brand?'"
At the "point of dissatisfaction," consumers get to participate for some token of appreciation, but what they are really accomplishing is threefold: One, helping other consumers who may find a heretofore out-of-stock item quicker; two, helping the retailer keep popular items better stocked, leading to more business; and three, helping gapNsnap create and deliver a data stream to consumer-packaged-goods companies that can streamline their own operations to more efficiently deliver products where they are needed.
Where else is enterprise crowdsourcing changing the world of business? Here are just a few samples:
Education. Emerging massive open online courses use crowdsourcing tools to change the way online courses are being managed, according to The New York Times.
Health care. This is a vibrant area of collaborative efforts, including the Harvard Catalyst project for supporting collaboration between medical researchers at various hospitals. In early June, the Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute awarded a $40,000 innovation prize to WellSpringboard, developer of a prototype crowdsourcing app that helps health care specialists fund research projects.
Human resources. Software as a Service vendor Globoforce in June announced a crowdsourced performance report as part of its performance management and employee engagement offerings. Two other software vendors, CrowdSource and CrowdFlower, both enable companies to use the power of crowds to staff up big projects quickly.
Science. Astronomy has always been a something of a crowd effort. For example, the SETI@Home project was formed in 1999 to harness unused computer capacity to crunch data for the ongoing Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. The Milky Way Project lets users help identify data from NASA's Galactic Legacy Infrared Mid-Plane Survey Extraordinaire (GLIMPSE) and Multiband Imaging Photometer for Spitzer Galactic Plane Survey (MIPSGAL) programs.
Venture capital: Crowdfunding has gone beyond the collection of money to serious analysis by economists on what the process means going forward.
Weddings. The Honeyfund website helps newlywed couples pay for their honeymoon trips by creating a registry of vacation segments -- hotel, activities, a fancy dinner -- and enabling family and friends to chip in.
I really don't believe what we are seeing is a form of "cloud-washing" -- that is, calling something a crowd service when it really isn't, just to take advantage of the buzz around the term. The future doesn't belong to crowds, not anymore. The crowds are here in the present and are pointing the way forward.
Scot Petersen is the editorial director of TechTarget's Business Applications and Architecture Media Group. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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