Why Crowdsourcing Works

Why Crowdsourcing Works

By Hutch Carpenter

Crowdsourcing is a method of solving problems through the distributed contributions of multiple people. Time and again, crowdsourcing has been used successfully to solve challenges. But…why does it work? What gives it an advantage over talking with your pals? In a word: diversity.Cognitive diversity. Specifically:

  • Diverse inputs drive superior solutions
  • Cognitive diversity requires spanning gaps in social networks

Let’s examine how these two principles deliver results.

Diverse inputs drive superior solutions

When trying to solve a challenge, what’s the probability that any one person has the best solution? It’s simple math: LOW.

How to get around this? Partly by more participants: increased shots on goal. But even more important is diversity of thinking. Contributions based on diverse cognitive toolkits:

Image 1

As described by University of Michigan Professor Scott Page in The Difference, our cognitive toolkits consist of: knowledge, perspectives and heuristics (problem-solving methods). Diverse cognitive toolkits offer fresh perspectives and novel approaches. Indeed, a research study found the probability of solving scientific challenges is three times higher if a person’s field of expertise is seven degrees outside the domain of the problem.

In another study, researchers analyzed the results of an online protein-folding game, Foldit. Proteins fold themselves, but no one – including biochemists – understands how they do so. Foldit allows users to simulate it, with an eye towards better understanding the ways the proteins fold themselves. As reported by Andrew McAfee, top players of Foldit were better than both computers and biochemistry experts at understanding the folding sequence. The surprising finding? None had taken chemistry beyond high school. Spatial skills are more important to solving the problem than domain knowledge of proteins.

Those two examples provide real-world proof for the models and solution-seeking benefits of cognitive diversity.

Cognitive diversity requires spanning gaps in social networks

Cognitive diversity clearly has a significant benefit for problem-solving. Generally when something has proven value, companies adopt it as a key operating principle. Yet getting this diversity isn’t as easy and common as one might expect.

Image 2Why?
Because it’s dependent on human behavior. We turn to our close connections for advice and feedback. These strong ties represent our daily interactions.

This natural reliance on strong ties is why companies are challenged to leverage their cognitive diversity. University of Chicago Professor Ron Burt describes the issue as one of structural holes between nodes in a collaborative network in Structural Holes and Good Ideas (pdf). Structural holes are gaps between different groups in the organization. Information does not flow across structural holes.

When people operate primarily within their own node, their information sources are redundant. Over time, the people in the node know the same facts, develop the same assumptions and optimize to work together harmoniously.

The impact is a severe curtailment of fresh thinking, reducing idea quality. Professor Burt found evidence for this in a study of Raytheon’s Supply Chain Group. 673 employees were characterized by their social network connections, plotting them on a spectrum from insular to diverse. These employees provided one idea to improve supply chain management. Their ideas were then assessed by executives.


The results? Employees with more diverse connections provided better ideas. To the right is a graph of the rated ideas, with a curve based on the average idea ratings versus the submitter’s level of network diversity. The curve shows that each increase in diversity raised the average idea quality.Image 3

Employees with access to diverse, non-redundant information provided better ideas. Inside organizations, there are employees who excel at making diverse connections across the organization. They are brokers across the structural holes in social networks.

Professor Burt provides the key insight about these brokers:

People connected to groups beyond their own can expect to find themselves delivering valuable ideas, seeming to be gifted with creativity. This is not creativity born of genius; it is creativity as an import-export business. An idea mundane in one group can be a valuable insight in another.

An “import-export business”. It’s a metaphor that well describes the key value of the brokers. They are exchange mechanisms for cognitive diversity. They are incredibly valuable to moving things forward inside organizations. But are organizations overly dependent on these super-connectors? Yes. Companies leave millions on the table by not enabling more comprehensive and efficient means for exchanges of cognitive diversity.

What if we systematized what the super-connectors do?

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Crowdsourcing doesn’t eliminate the need for the super-connectors. They play a number of valuable roles inside organizations. But by crowdsourcing to solve problems, companies gain the following:

  • Deeper reach into the cognitive assets of all employees
  • Avoiding the strong ties trap of problem-solving
  • Faster surfacing of the best insights
  • Neutralize the biases that the super-connectors naturally have

As you consider ways to improve your decision-making and to foster greater cross-organizational collaboration, make crowdsourcing a key element of your strategic approach.


Featured Image Courtesy of www.pixabay.com

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