Thoughts on the Flaws of Crowdsourcing

I came across this post from Hollis Tibbetts on Twitter and thought I would add a few comments to what he highlights as the “shortcomings of crowdsourcing.”
Tibbetts had three main points and I’ll respond to each.

1) For the most part, the really talented architects and developers are busy with lucrative and demanding jobs…I’m not saying that there aren’t some highly skilled people out there. But one needs to be realistic…

…the quality of the end-solution is mostly determined by the quality of the talent pool and how well the contest is set up and managed.

The simple response is that crowdsourcing helps bridge geographical barriers. This unlocks labor. It also frees labor from being tied down to a location. Both create massive potential for achieving great things by accessing way more people than any local business can leverage. The fact that companies create satellite offices and operations worldwide is testament to the business need for accessing wider pools of a talent. Crowdsourcing is the ultimate spigot to global labor.
I frequently joke at work that I should literally quit my job, move to some tropical island and participate in crowdsourcing projects. This seems possible to me because crowdsourcing can frequently be the same as doing freelance work–so long as you’re getting paid. (I’m a fan of the for-pay crowdsourcing models because we all have to eat and free doesn’t put food on the table.)

2) It’s human nature that results and motivation go hand in hand. In the working world, motivation takes many forms, and every person is different. In general, people are motivated by compensation (monetary and non-monetary), respect and visibility from others, a sense of being part of a team, and the satisfaction of a job well done.

Because the nature of the relationship between a crowdsourcing participant and the business is so very ephemeral, the typical person simply doesn’t have the underlying motivation.

If we can structure a community around the projects we create, then the sense of alienation can be mitigated. And really social integration is a basic human need, so we need to leverage the technologies available to us to provide channels to communicate with others like “twitter-esque feeds”, forums or even video chat.
Beyond basic social connectedness, we need to promote the crowd–give them their 12 seconds of fame.
These are easy to do!

3) The mathematics of complex systems are against outsourcing in general. By this I mean that the effort to successfully manage such a project increases geometrically relative to the complexity of the problem trying to be solved. Specifically, the effort to fully document the requirements of a project, to quality assure the results, to ensure that the proposed solution not only meets the requirements as set forth, and provide a sound and extensible architectural base for the future increases MUCH faster than the actual effort required to solve the problem.

This is why each problem needs to be evaluated closely. Is crowdsourcing currently the right solution? How do we structure the solution? Can we create a process that can build momentum and result in our end goal (i.e. complexity is reduced by starting a process that organically builds the tools necessary to solve for what would otherwise be system-design catastrophe)?
In other words, proper project infrastructure can help alleviate complexity. Lucky for us, this problem is an infrastructure issue exactly of the same nature as “solving for the motivation problem”:
Create access screening, accountability, and pay. (pay may be monetary or social promotion or some combination of the two).

Main Conclusions:

While reading, I realized that these shortcomings are not intrinsic to crowdsourcing. The problems Tibbetts rightfully points out are more issues of a premature problem solving methodology. Crowdsourcing, the connection of humans to accomplish goals, is a social organization approach.

I see crowdsourcing playing an important role in our future social organization and labor distribution solutions. That’s a big statement, I know. I have outlines of how I see crowdsourcing developing and plan to share many of those conclusions soon.

As a last comment:

I find it interesting that Hollis Tibbetts mentions TopCoder and software development but doesn’t reference Open Source development once. Open Source Software development is clearly crowdsourcing!

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