Should BP crowdsource solutions to solve the Gulf oil spill?

Clifford Krauss of the New York Times reports on BP’s latest effort to cap the oil leak, called “top kill”. He notes the following:

The consequences for BP are profound: A successful capping of the leaking well could finally begin to mend the company’s brittle image after weeks of failed efforts, and perhaps limit the damage to wildlife and marine life from reaching catastrophic levels.

A failure could mean several months more of leaking oil, devastating economic and environmental impacts across the gulf region, and mounting financial liabilities for the company. BP has already spent an estimated $760 million in fighting the spill, and two relief wells it is drilling as a last resort to seal the well may not be completed until August.

Let’s hope for the best. Given the challenges of the previous efforts, it sounds like it will take a monumental effort to stop the leaking well.

Which begs a question…should BP be tapping a larger set of minds to help solve the leaking well? Can they crowdsource a solution?

In a way, they’re already doing it. Sort of. You can call an idea hotline to suggest ways to stop the oil. They even have the number posted on their home page.

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But why not take it a step further? A formal crowdsourcing effort. I’ve heard that the folks at Innocentive asked this on an NPR report. Another vendor also pitched its idea management software, however BP didn’t bite. Spigit hasn’t pitched BP, but would certainly be willing to help.

There are some very good reasons to open it more publicly, and cast a call across the globe for ideas:

  • Diversity of ideas increases the odds of finding something that will be useful
  • While no one idea may solve it, visibility (as opposed to private phone calls) increases the odds of finding parts of ideas that lead to viable solutions
  • The brain power of enthusiastic participants across the globe is a good match to BP’s in-house experts
  • Potentially a good PR move, as the company demonstrates that it’s leaving no stone unturned to solve the leak

Crowdsourcing has proven its value in other endeavors, such as products, government services, technical problems and marketing. Surely it could do well here. But what might hold BP back? Three reasons:

  1. Little previous experience with crowdsourcing
  2. Deep technical domain experience is required
  3. Site becomes a place for public criticism

Are they valid? Let’s see.

Little Previous Crowdsourcing Experience

If a company hasn’t previously mastered open innovation and crowdsourcing, a crisis is a hell of a time to give it a go. This is far from comprehensive, but I did find a couple examples of BP’s forways in the world of crowdsouring and open innovation.

Headshift wrote up a case study about BP’s Beacon Awards. The internal awards recognize innovative marketing initiatives, and BP created a site for employees to submit ideas and vote on them. This example has a couple elements of note:

  • It’s an internal effort, where “mistakes” can be made as the company gets comfortable with the process of crowdsourcing
  • It was for marketing ideas in a time of relative calm, not time-is-ticking ideas during a crisis

BP also touts its open innovation efforts. Open innovation means working with others outside your organization to come up with new ways of tackling problems. In  a post on its website, it discusses its work with partners:

The need to work with others to solve tricky problems has most likely been around since humans learned to communicate, pooling their skills to achieve a desired mutual goal. In today’s world, collaboration between partner organisations has become highly sophisticated, particularly so in the energy industry where new challenges abound, be those in security of supply, cleaner energy sources, or the bringing together of different scientific and engineering disciplines to focus on a common problem.

Certainly the oil spill qualifies as a tricky problem.

So BP has experience in crowdsourcing internally on marketing ideas, and in open innovation with academia and industry partners. Not too shabby, and that argues for their having a favorable disposition toward crowdsourcing.

Deep Technical Domain Expertise Is Required

OK, I’ll admit. I have no idea how I’d stop the oil leak. Maybe I could come up with an idea as I give my kids a bath (“so you take the rubber duckie, and move it over the drain…”).

The BP oil leak occurred deep underwater, an area subject to different conditions than oil companies have had to deal with. BP is sparing no level of expertise to fix the issue, reports the New York Times:

Several veterans of that operation are orchestrating technicians in the Gulf of Mexico. To lead the effort, BP has brought in Mark Mazzella, its top well-control expert, who was mentored by Bobby Joe Cudd, a legendary Oklahoma well firefighter.

Didn’t even know one could be a legendary well firefighter. But the challenges of doing this in the Gulf are different. Popular Mechanics has a scorecard of each previous effort by BP to stop the leaking well. Do you remember one effort called “The Straw”? It is capturing a part of the oil, siphoning it to a surface ship. But it’s not without its risks:

The real gamble was in the original insertion—the damaged riser’s structural integrity is unknown, and any prodding could have worsened the spill, or prevented any hope of other riser- or BOP-related fixes.

Given the highly technical nature of these efforts, and the myriad complexities, does it make sense to crowdsource? I’d say it does, in that a proposed idea need not satisfy all elements of risk mitigation and possible complications. That puts too high a burden on idea submitters. Start with the idea, let the domain experts evaluate its feasibility.

Keep in  mind that people outside a company can solve technical challenges. Jeff Howe wrote in Wired about the guy who tinkers in a one-bedroom apartment above an auto body shop. This guy solved a vexing problem for Colgate involving the insertion of fluoride powder into a toothpaste tube.

Site Becomes a Place for Public Criticism

If BP were to set up a public site that allows anyone to participate, I can guarantee that some percentage of ideas and comments will be devoted to excoriating BP. In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me if much of it became that. A free-for-all that has nothing to do with solving the oil well leak.

A public forum receiving press attention during an extreme crisis presents angry individuals with a too-tempting target to make mischief. BP could spend more time deleting or responding to comments than getting much from it. The anger is too strong, too visceral on the part of many across the world.

Charlene Li talks about meeting criticism head-on in her book Open Leadership. Perhaps one way BP could handle this would be to set up a companion forum where criticism could be moved to. Keep an idea site dedicated to just that…ideas.

But I can see how BP understandably would not want to deal with such a site, as it potentially becomes a major PR pain on top of the existing maelstrom.

This reason strikes me as the one most likely to keep BP away from a crowdsourcing initiative to complement their other efforts. What do you think? Should BP be crowdsourcing solutions to the Gulf oil spill?

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