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Why crowdsourcing works

CrowdCrowdsourcing is a method of solving problems through the distributed contributions of multiple people. It’s used to address tough problems that happen everyday. Ideas for new opportunities. Ways to solve problems. Uncovering an existing approach that addresses your need.

Time and again, crowdsourcing has been used successfully to solve challenges. But…why does it work? What’s the magic? What gives it an advantage over talking with your pals at work, or doing some brainstorming on your own? In a word: diversity. Cognitive diversity. Specifically these two principles:

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

These two principles work in tandem to deliver results.

Diverse inputs drive superior solutions

When trying to solve a challenge, what is the probability that any one person will have the best solution for it? It’s a simple mathematical reality: the odds of any single person providing the top answer are low.

How do we get around this? Partly by more participants; increased shots on goal. But even more important is diversity of thinking. People contributing based on their diverse cognitive toolkits:

Cognitive toolkit

As described by University of Michigan Professor Scott Page in The Difference, our cognitive toolkits consist of: different knowledge, perspectives and heuristics (problem-solving methods). Tapping into people’s cognitive toolkits brings fresh perspectives and novel approaches to solving a challenge. Indeed, a research study found that the probability of solving tough 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 understands how they do so. This is particularly true of experts in the field of biochemistry. So the online game allows users to simulate it, with an eye towards better understanding the ways the proteins fold themselves. As reported by Andrew McAfee, the top players of Foldit were better than both computers and experts in the field at understanding the folding sequence. The surprising finding? None had taken chemistry beyond a high school course. It turns out spatial skills are more important to solve the problem than deep domain knowledge of proteins.

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

Solution landscape - cornstalksProblem solving can be thought of as building a solutions landscape, planted with different ideas. Each person achieves their local optimum, submitting the best idea they can for a given challenge based on their cognitive assets.

But here’s the rub: any one person’s idea is unlikely to be the best one that could be uncovered. This makes sense as both a probabilistic outcome, and based on our own experiences. However in aggregate, some ideas will stand out clearly from the rest. Cognitive diversity is the fertile ground where these best ideas will sprout.

In addition to being a source of novel ideas, cognitive diversity is incredibly valuable as feedback on others’ ideas. Ideas are improved as people contribute their distinct points of view. The initial idea is the seedling, and feedback provides the nutrients that allow it to grow.

Cognitive diversity requires spanning gaps in social networks

Cognitive diversity clearly has a significant positive effect on problem-solving. Generally when something has proven value to outcomes, companies adopt it as a key operating principle. Yet getting this diversity has not proven to be as easy and common as one might expect.

Why?

Strong weak no tiesBecause it’s dependent on human behavior. Left to our own devices, we tend to turn to our close connections for advice and feedback. These strong ties are the core of our day-in, day-out interactions.

But this natural human tendency to turn to our 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 corporate social network in his paper, Structural Holes and Good Ideas (pdf). A structural hole is a gap between different groups in the organization. Information does not flow across structural holes.

In and of themselves, structural holes are not the problem. Rather, the issue is that 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 in harmony. Sort of like a silo of social ties.

Idea quality vs diversity of connectionsThe impact of this is a severe curtailment of fresh thinking, which impacts the quality of ideas. Professor Burt found empirical 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 then provided one idea to improve supply chain management at Raytheon. Their ideas were then assessed by two senior executives.

The results? Employees with more diverse social connections provided higher quality 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 with each increase in the diversity of a person’s connections, the higher the value of their idea.

Employees with access to diverse sources of information provided better ideas.  Their access to nonredundant information allowed them to generate more novel, higher potential ideas. Inside organizations, there are employees who excel at making diverse connections across the organization. These people are the ones who will provide better ideas. 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”. Consider that for a moment. 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 are leaving millions on the table by not enabling a more scalable, comprehensive and efficient means for exchanges of cognitive diversity.

Would if we could systematize what the most connected employees do?

Systematize the diverse connections

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.

I’m @bhc3 on Twitter, and I’m a Senior Consultant with HYPE Innovation.

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Is Google+ More Facebook or More Twitter? Yes

Quick, what existing social network is Google+ most likely to displace in terms of people’s time?

Another Try by Google to Take On Facebook

Claire Cain Miller, New York Times

This isn’t a Facebook-killer, it’s a Twitter-killer.

Yishan Wong, Google+ post

A hearty congrats to Google for creating an offering that manages to be compared to both Facebook and Twitter. The initial press focused on Google+ as a Facebook competitor. But as people have gotten to play with it, more and more they are realizing that it’s just as much a Twitter competitor.

I wanted to understand how that’s possible. How is it Google+ competes with both of those services? To do so, I plotted Google+’s features against comparable features in both Facebook and Twitter. The objective was to understand:

  • Why are people thinking of Google+ as competitor to both existing social networks?
  • How did the Google team make use of the best of both services?

The chart below is shows where Google+ is more like Facebook or Twitter. The red check marks () and gray shading highlight which service a Google+ feature is more like.

A few notes about the chart.

Circles for tracking: Twitter has a very comparable feature with its Lists. Facebook also lets you put connections into lists; I know because I’ve put connections into lists (e.g. Family, High School, etc.). But I had a hard time figuring out where those lists are. in the Facebook UI. Seriously, where are they for accessing? They may be available somewhere, but it’s not readily accessible. So I didn’t consider Facebook as offering this as a core experience.

+1 voting on posts: Both Google+ and Facebook allow up votes on people’s posts.Twitter has the ‘favorite’ feature. Which is sort of like up voting. But not really. It’s not visible to others, and it’s more a bookmarking feature.

Posts in web search results: Google+ posts, the public ones, show up in Google search results. Not surprising there. Tweets do as well. Facebook posts for the most part do not. I understand some posts on public pages can. But the vast majority of Wall posts never show up in web search results.

Google+ One-Way Following Defines Its Experience

When you look at the chart above, on a strict feature count, Google+ is more like Facebook. It’s got comment threading, video chat,  inline media, and limited sharing.

But for me, the core defining design of Google+ is the one-way following. I can follow anyone on Google+. They may not follow back (er…put me in a circle), but I can see their public posts. This one-way following is what makes the experience more like Twitter for me. Knowing your public posts are out there for anyone to find and read is both boon and caution. For instance, I’ll post pics of my kids on Facebook, because I know who can see those pics – the people I’ve connected with. I don’t tend to post their pics on Twitter. Call me an old fashioned protective parent.

That’s my initial impression. Now as Google+ circles gain ground in terms of usage, they will become the Facebook equivalent of two-way following. Things like sharing and +mentions are issues that are hazy to me right now. Can someone reshare my “circle-only” post to others outside my circle? Do I have to turn off reshare every time? Does +mentioning someone outside my circle make them aware of the post?

Google has created quite a powerful platform here. While most features are not new innovations per se, Google+ benefits from the experience of both Twitter and Facebook. They’re off to a good start.

I’m @bhc3 on Twitter.

Three Pluses, Three Minuses of Quora as a KM System

This question was posted on Quora, “In 10 words or less, what is Quora?” My answer:

Powerful application of crowdsourcing and social networking to knowledge management

Knowledge Management (aka “KM”) is a field that I don’t have personal experience in. It’s supposed to be practices, processes and systems where valuable knowledge of workers is collected and made available for others. KM continues to be an important topic for enterprises these days, but it also freighted with many failures and disappointments.

Without the benefit of a KM history, I wanted to look at Quora in the context of someone with an objective today: how do I make it easier for employees to find and share their knowledge?

In that cntext, I see three really good things about Quora, and three things that distort its value.

The Pluses

Purpose-Built: A premise of Enterprise 2.0 is that tools need to be lightweight and flexible for multiple purposes. That’s what you get with microblogging, wikis, blogs, forums. The problem there is that the flexibility undermines their value for delivering on specific needs. One must wade through a lot of other stuff to get to what you want.

Quora is purpose-built. It’s not a place for sharing links you find interesting or talking about the American Idol selection process. It’s a place where you know there will be relevant questions, and often good answers. Which means they can focus on delivering to the purpose, not try to be all-things to all people. Important for KM.

Crowdsourcing: Very, very important. Quora leverages the the principles of crowdsourcing to elicit knowledge. It’s not just a system for experts. Too often the focus of people is to get “the experts” on the record, assuming most others have little to add. That is a shame.

The ability to follow topics allows people to track areas of either interest (to find answers) or expertise (to provide answers). As Professor Scott Page notes in his book, The Difference, everyone has a unique set of cognitive skills. To assume there are the “masters” and then there’s the “riff raff” is to lose a significant percentage of knowledge. Crowdsourcing ensure broader opportunity to get at all relevant knowledge.

Social networking: We have people we like to follow. They may be friends, and we enjoy their takes on things. Or they may be people we admire, and who have demonstrated a capacity to provide valuable answers. The personal connection here, that we have an interest in a person as opposed to a topic is valuable.

By letting me follow people, I am exposed to things that have a higher likelihood of interest to me. We can’t all be on Quora, or a KM site. But some portion of our networks will be, and seeing what they’ve been up to keeps me interested and contributes to a serendipity in acquiring knowledge.

It’s also encouraging to know I have a set of people who are receptive to me questions and my answers. Much better than a cold system of questions and answers only.

The Minuses

Discerning the wheat from the chaff: Quora gets noisy. For some, too noisy. That happens in an open platform. There will be some great answers to questions, but some pretty bad ones too.  In terms of KM, some argue for restricting participation to only the known experts:

Few are blessed with serious, specifically relevant knowledge or know-how. Any system which facilitates overly broad participation will inextricably bury any expert knowledge under a pile of low value chatter. I am persuaded that for valuable ideas & thoughts to produce innovation there need to be a highly afferent and efferent system capable of synthesizing powerful multidimensional analytical databases with the know-how of subject matter experts, the imagination of visionaries and the creative mind of innovators who do not fret from the challenge of thinking.

The community culture needs to have a strict sense of what’s valuable, what’s not. And up-vote and down-vote accordingly.

Lots of followers means lots of up-votes: This is the downside of social networking. Some people have HUGE numbers of connections. Which means they have a built-in audience for their answers above and beyond the topic followers. An army of followers can come in and cause an answer to move to first position based on that alone, regardless of answer quality.

A good solution here is to employ a form of reputation to weight those votes. Don’t let just the volume of votes determine the top answer, look at the reputation of those who are voting.

You could also weight the answers themselves according to reputation, although I’m a little wary of that. Makes it harder for new voices with quality contributions to get traction.

Incentives to participate: I’m busy. You’re busy. We’re all busy. Who has time to participate? This will always be an issue. With things like microblogging, there’s a core communication need they satisfy. So that more closely aligns with my day-in-, day-out work. But answering some distant colleague’s question?

There are a lot of ways to address this. Getting participation early on from enthusiasts goes a long way in terms of demonstrating value (something Quora has done). Getting kudos for good answers is a huge motivator. Obviously, getting a good answer just once is critical to seeing the value. And Q&A seems like a perfect activity for applying game mechanics.

All in all, I really like the KM potential for Quora. It doesn’t need to be as heavily active as Twitter, but benefits from a broader participation than what is seen in Wikipedia. The minuses are challenges to overcome, but they are not insurmountable.

My Ten Favorite Tweets – Week Ending 010810

From the home office in Sacramento, where Governor Schwarzenegger laid out an initial budget that will take 11 months to resolve and pass…go ahead and get your California jokes ready now…

#1: If this topic interests you – Designing for Innovation through Competitive Collaboration – I ask for your #e2conf vote http://bit.ly/8xuQuC

#2: The Wisdom of Crowds Like Me http://bit.ly/4WM1Bi #crowdsourcing

#3: How Do Product Managers Reject Bad Ideas? http://bit.ly/7j6Ax0 by @chriscummings01 #innovation

#4: Jessica Hagy: The Visual Grammar of Ideas :: Articles :: The 99 Percent #innovation http://post.ly/HcJL

#5: Should you be thinking about Enterprise 2.0 in 2010? http://cli.gs/th9me by @dahowlett > A rare, rare bit of optimism there #e20

#6: MITRE’s intranet, including its Spigit deployment, is named to Jakob Nielsen’s Top 10 Intranets for 2010: http://bit.ly/5jrgJY #e20

#7: RT @dhinchcliffe The K-factor Lesson: How Social Ecosystems Grow (Or Not) http://bit.ly/8aEQEQ

#8: RT @paujoral Great quote by @wimrampen: “the name of the (social networking) game is how to participate in knowledge flows”

#9: Just had to use the “Let Me Google That for You” site for a colleague: http://lmgtfy.com/

#10: This is both funny and so true: Effect of Bay Area earthquakes on Twitter traffic http://twitpic.com/x3c10 (h/t @louisgray)

My Ten Favorite Tweets – Week Ending 010110

From the home office in the future, where I’m currently reviewing all these 2010 predictions with a skeptical eye…

#1: How Companies Increase Innovation – WSJ.com #innovation http://post.ly/GubP

#2: RT @chuckfrey Amazon’s Jeff Bezos on two ways to approach customer-focused innovation: http://ow.ly/QIbl #innovation #strategy

#3: RT @briansolis Ideas Connect Us More than Relationships (video interview) http://bit.ly/8wPTzf

#4: Outstanding, detailed post on Enterprise 2.0 adoption from @ITSinsider & the @20adoption council: http://bit.ly/516Cv4 #e20

#5: Designing For Social Traction by Joshua Porter #design http://post.ly/GoE6

#6: Intellipedia anyone? “Preventing the Terrorist Attack: Massive Failure in Collaboration” http://bit.ly/6AQgPV #e20 #gov20

#7: 2010 Predictions from @jkuramot of Oracle AppsLab: http://bit.ly/7ainDr “Reputation will be all the rage in 2010.” > Agree

#8: RT @matthewemay Six years ago this USAToday essay by Jim Collins changed my entire view of the world. http://is.gd/5HPPu

#9: RT @davewiner: Anil Dash, an upper-caste Twitterer, explains to low-life scum like you and I, what it’s like up there. :-) http://r2.ly/yxbt

#10: My 5 1/2 y.o. son on why he didn’t see a friend’s kindergarten girl from the sister school in his coed class: “All the girls look alike.”

My Ten Favorite Tweets – Week Ending 111909

From the home office in the restarted Cern Large Hadron Collider along the French-Swiss border…

#1: What Shaun White & Snowboarding Can Teach You About #Innovation http://ow.ly/E8h7 Get exposure for ideas early, so others can digest impact

#2: Managing Employee Innovation Communities (via Spigit blog) http://bit.ly/3SREBr #innovation #e20

#3: City of Manor’s “citizens’ innovation” project (using Spigit) is featured on WhiteHouse.gov blog: http://ow.ly/DURl #gov20

#4: RT @CarolineDangson #IDC Social Survey: workers say they use IM for ‘collaboration’ & social networks for ‘sharing’ – thinking about diff

#5: RT @rotkapchen: RT @wimrampen Social Media Disrupts Decision-Making Process http://bit.ly/2KTUIz (via @GrahamHill)

#6 RT @tjkeitt Starting the process of researching #e2.0 technology pushed into business processes (CRM, ERP, project management, etc.). This is the future.

#7: RT @kevinmarks says @Caterina “Google never got social software – Knol means you have to write a whole article; wikipedia combines tiny contributions” #w2e

#8: Pitching Sequoia? They want to know which deadly sin your company lets customers indulge in http://ow.ly/DGn1 by @glennkelman

#9: Checking out: The Awesomeness Manifesto http://ow.ly/DmID by @umairh Much to love in that one #innovation

#10: Time Magazine is apparently torn between naming Twitter or the Economy as its “Person” of the Year http://ow.ly/CRbB

My Ten Favorite Tweets – Week Ending 111309

From the home office in my watery swimming pool on the moon…

#1: RT @innovate: The 50 Best Inventions of 2009 http://ow.ly/BVB0 #innovation I like #40 Edible Race Car. #9 Tweeting by thinking?

#2: RT @lindegaard: Tough Questions and Great Answers: General Mills Steps Up to the Open Innovation Plate: http://bit.ly/2nEXSv

#3: Microsoft Bing team gets kudos for #innovation. First tweet search, now Wolfram|Alpha integration http://ow.ly/BrHC

#4: Is Twitter Trying to Lure You Back to Twitter.com? http://ow.ly/AfcU by @robdiana > Maybe a way to drive page views for ads?

#5: Regarding new Twitter retweet function, @stoweboyd has some good points about it http://ow.ly/AIl7 Inability to add text is a miss

#6: October was a slow traffic month for the social networks, in a detailed look by @louisgray http://ow.ly/BCgU Facebook still growing

#7: UK Guardian discusses how to deal when your boss is on Twitter (& links to my #cisco fatty blog post f/ March) http://ow.ly/Bkrf

#8: Check out: Driving Adoption is anti-2.0 http://bit.ly/1ksZAr #e2conf > Leave it to @rotkapchen!

#9: Do we create the world just by looking at it? http://bit.ly/1kdTOs “Human body is a just barely adequate measuring device” #quantumphysics

#10: Commentator on NPR this AM criticizes Californians for social liberal/fiscal conservative & not wanting taxes. Western libertarian strain!

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