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Crowdsourcing: Why it’s Not a Waste of Time

| Friday October 23rd, 2009 | 0 Comments


Screen shot 2009-10-22 at 4.05.58 PMCrowdsourcing. You’ve probably heard the term over and over, and when I began to hear it from Dwayne Spradlin of Innocentive as he presented at the inaugural Social Media for Sustainability conference in San Francisco on Monday, I began to tune out. A buzzword with not a lot of tangible results. A recipe for messy, small-results projects.

But what he did earlier got my attention. He said that if we in the audience as a group of 100s could synchronize our claps in under 45 seconds, he’d donate to a charitable cause of note. We did it in about 10 seconds. Trivial as this may sound, it served as a micro example of how, given the right incentives, people can coordinate and focus activity towards a goal, getting results faster than otherwise thought possible.

In his presentation, “Creating Value Together – Online Collaboration and Competition Networks,” Spradlin gave several real-world examples of opening, widely, to help get supposedly intractable problems solved quickly.

The Exxon Valdez–or rather, what it left behind–provided a perfect example. There have been about 80,000 barrels of oil sitting at the bottom of the ocean in Prince William Sound since the accident. But it’s in frigid water, keeping it solid and basically immobile. A call was put out on the Innocentive site, asking for a solution for removing the congealed oil, and a person who works with cement–keying in on the similarities between oil and cement–suggested a winning method.

Nobody could have anticipated where this solution would came from. And that’s the point. When we presume that we’ve already got the best people to work on an issue, with industry specific knowledge, their solutions will, in the end, be limited by what they think is possible, and we may stop trying, thinking we’ve exhausted our options.

Though I’m not a fan of gold mining for the most part, Gold Corp likewise showed the possibilities of “opening the kimono,” so to speak. The company was nearly going out of business, when someone had the idea that nobody could have previously fathomed. It put all of the geological data of every site it owned out to the public, and offered a large sum to those who could use it to help them find gold.

The winner? Someone from a company called Fractal Graphics with zero experience in gold mining, but a lot in data mining. The result? Finds in every location they suggested, and Gold Corp is still in business, thriving.

Innocentive has hit on a simple, powerful catalyst to help accelerate innovation. It combines financial incentives with the crowdsourcing model. Money motivates people to work harder at finding creative solutions  than if they were driven only by a desire to solve the problem.

Innovation is a word tossed around more than rice at a wedding, but in this case, it’s applicable.


Spradlin had much more to share, and all of it was videotaped, so I’d invite you to keep track of the Social Media for Sustainability conference site, or the main Justmeans site for details on that.

Where is your company stuck? How could you open yourself to the knowledge and ideas of the world to move you forward? Innocentive is one place for that to happen. Where else do you see crowdsourcing effectively being leveraged for tangible, useful results? Let’s talk about it, below.

Paul Smith is a sustainable business innovator, the founder of GreenSmith Consulting, and has an MBA in Sustainable Management from Presidio Graduate School in San Francisco. He creates interest in, conversations around, and business for green (and greening) companies, via social media.


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