Fortune 500 Companies Cozy Up to Crowdsourcing
BY MAUREEN MURTHA | 4 min read

Innovation is a pretty big buzzword, almost to the point of exhaustion. And let's be honest: when we speak about the importance of innovation in our organizations, or our organization "being a leader" in innovation, there's a bit of a strong implication there; the implication that someone is actually doing the innovating. But is that necessarily true? Yes, "innovation" may be the go-to solution when everything else fails, a safe trend to follow, and a must-have for all...but is always a practical description of what the organization is actually doing? 

So that's where things tend to get a little troublesome. In order to successfully implement an "innovation program," corporates need the time and resources, leap huge organizational barriers, and above all, they need leadership that is transparent about the company’s innovation strategy -- and willing to take the risks involved. Sounds like a bit of a tall order.  In reality, most companies lack the resources and commitment it takes to go "hard" on innovation. A couple of consultants every year and some partnership programs are probably about as bold as things are going to get, in reality. But that's simply not enough to keep up with the rapidly accelerating pace of technology and market disruption that we continue to experience. Relax, there is better way. 

The Old Way: Open Innovation 

There are a number of possibilities in the realm of innovation programs and initiatives. 38% of the leading 200 companies value innovation enough to have created an internal strategy, many of which relate to "open innovation." Open innovation is “a paradigm that assumes that firms can and should use external ideas as well as internal ideas, and internal and external paths to market, as the firms look to advance their technology." It has been gaining importance with the understanding that it’s next to impossible to keep up with the rapidly changing technological landscape focusing only on internal processes. And indeed, one only needs to look at the fate of Blockbuster, or watch the jaw-dropping consolidation of Amazon and Whole Foods to know that the threat is real and it doesn't discriminate based on industry. As for open innovation, however, does it work? And more importantly, is it enough? It certainly does work, and it might have been enough at one point, but when it comes down to it, open innovation programs just won't have the sheer reach that is necessary for today's global economy. The art and science of building such a reach is the stuff of marketing departments and whole dedicated teams of people, working over years to cultivate a entry point for the would-be innovators to participate. In short: there are too many other options out there for the people that an open innovation program might attract, and likely those other options have a more captive audience. 

Crowdsourcing is "The New Way"

By this point, it may be hard to discern how "crowdsourcing" is any different from "open innovation." After all, isn't this just semantics? No. Not just semantics. Crowdsourcing may have been developed as a "loose" term, but the word has come to describe a very particular type of campaign-based, two-sided marketplace. You're not just attracting innovators with crowdsourcing, you're building brand identity. You're defining yourself to the public as a company that is adaptable and, well, here to stay.  The value of crowdsourcing for organizations is that the anonymous members of the “crowd” are free of the five b’s: biases and behaviors that might be causing blindness to an obvious solution, burnout from thinking about something too much, and being bound up (sometimes unwittingly) in industry status quo. If we’re really cutting deep here, there’s a sixth b that can also apply: boredom. What might feel like the “same old same old” uninspiring issues that your employees deal with on a daily basis is instead a fascinating, novel problem for someone on the outside. Crowdsourcing bulldozes through all of that malaise just by its very nature. Why doesn't it work that way with open innovation? Well in theory, it should work the same way, but because crowdsourcing utilizes pre-existing, cultivated, diverse audiences of problem-solvers (as in the community of HeroX) - these traits are much better screened for; in other words, the best of the best keep coming back to all different types of problems. Moreso, the "network effect" means the community is large enough that no matter how specific the ask is, someone in the community has a point of contact for that skillset, or has one at least 2 degrees away from them. By trusting and admiring the mission of the crowdsourcing platform, the community then acts with their own intrinsic motivation to recruit and summon the best solvers in their orbit. Pretty cool stuff. 

Look who's crowdsourcing

Just on the HeroX platform alone, clients have included The Coca-Cola Company, NASA (many times over), Forbes Magazine, NBC Entertainment, Land O'Lakes, Boeing, Facebook, Booz Allen Hamilton, the Rockefeller Foundation, City of Austin, TX, and the City of San Jose, CA -- all looking to put it all out there and see what the crowd can do for them.  Beyond the HeroX platform, companies that have embraced crowdsourcing include such household names as Dell, Anheuser-Busch, General Mills, and AT&T. 

The remarkable change for corporate innovation in recent years is thanks to such behemoth institutions showing an earnestness about the possiblities of crowdsoucing and, in many cases, diving right in, as if to say to the rest of the business world: "hey, the water's fine!"

Where it's all headed

Surely, as the larger companies go, so goes the overall trends for their industries. It's hard to sit back and watch your main competitior engage in a completely new tactic without getting a little curious as to "what you're missing." In short: it's only a matter of time. Large, high-profile, and externally managed crowdsourcing campaigns are more or less the way of the future. Until companies realize they can and should afford to make space for their own 100% in-house crowdsourcing outfit, this is how we will see some of the most influential shifts and breakthroughs in some of the most popular global brands.  



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