Collaboration in the Era of Crowdsourcing

9 minute read
Hutch Carpenter avatar

Hi Michelle --

We don’t know each other, but I’m working on a new idea. Through our internal collaboration system, I found that you may have expertise relevant to it based on your documents, posts and profile. I’d like to discuss with you what I’m working on, and what I need to help flesh out this concept.


Imagine getting a message like that. How would you respond?

I’ll relate an anecdote from the corporate world that addresses that question. When I was at BEA Systems, I presented several Aqualogic social software apps to a major financial institution, including expertise location. A person there asked me if Aqualogic supported degrees of separation analysis between two employees. Why? Because he knew that the likelihood of an employee responding to a fellow employee she didn’t know was actually quite low. The degrees of connectedness would be a chain of referral introductions to connect the two employees.

In other words, you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it collaborate.

That is the traditional nature of collaboration. A very strong ties orientation. But as Andrew McAfee, Mark Granovetter and others have written, that’s limiting for innovation purposes. The graphic below illustrates the opportunity – and changing dynamics – of collaboration in the era of crowdsourcing.



Let’s examine what collaboration looks like as the nature of work itself changes.

Innovation thrives on diverse inputs

Say you have a problem you need help with. Or the germ of an idea that’s incomplete. Sure, check with the people with whom you’re closest. They do sometimes have the answer. But more likely than not, they won’t. Or they give an answer that kinda, sorta helps. But not really.

It’s not their fault. It’s yours. You’re stuck in the most comfortable form of knowledge-seeking: asking your strong ties. Getting outside that comfort zone exposes you to a more diverse source of information. This happens in two ways:

  • Access to non-redundant information
  • Access to alternative perspectives and problem-solving heuristics

I think we can all understand non-redundant information. Accessing broader information than what our close ties give us. How can that be anything but good? It is a fundamental premise of the KM movement.

The second item there, perspectives and heuristics, might be new to you. In his book The Difference, Michigan professor Scott Page describes them as follows:

Perspective: a map from reality to an internal language such that each distinct object, situation, problem or event gets mapped to a unique world.

Heuristic: a rule applied to an existing solution represented in a perspective that generates a new (and hopefully better) solution or a new set of possible solutions.

Someone brings a diverse perspective to a problem if she sees the problem differently. By seeing it differently, she creates a different landscape. Someone brings a diverse heuristic if he knows a different rule or algorithm for finding solutions. So, perspectives are ways of seeing solutions, and heuristics are ways of constructing solutions, ways of moving around the space of possibilities.

Both new perspectives and new ways of exploring a problem are valuable. Indeed, studies show that people whose expertise is in a field outside that of a problem are actually better at solving it.

A good model for understanding this is to think of ideas for a problem as individual peaks on a “solutions landscape”. Through the information people possess, as well as the perspectives and heuristics they bring to bear on a problem, people offer a diversity of ideas. Some ideas are stronger, some are weaker. This can be represented visually as follows:


Each peak is a “local optimum”, a point where an individual or a team gets stuck after exhausting their knowledge, perspectives and heuristics. In the picture above, Idea #1 provides higher utility than all the other ideas. When people work in too constrained a social node, it’s easy to get stuck on a local optimum. But combining diverse knowledge, perspectives and heuristics helps (i) people in combination scale peaks to higher value solutions; or (ii) find individuals whose cognitive toolboxes let them start at a higher peak than others.

In sum, innovation works best with diverse inputs.

Collaboration gets stuck on close ties

The easiest thing to do is to turn familiar connections for ideas and to bounce concepts off. The essence of strong ties. In a paper examining Knowledge Mobilization through Social Ties, researchers Alexander Fliaster and Josef Spiess express this dynamic in terms of “relational inertia”:

This effect, which is particularly detrimental for radical innovations, is strengthened by the phenomenon of “relational inertia” (Gargiulo and Benassi (1999)). The easiness of collaboration with long-term familiar partners and the uncertainty and costs associated with the formation of new ties, which are by definition weak, can make established strong ties very stable and impede the building of new relationships, especially those with people from distant social worlds.

They also describe the concept of homophily, the tendency of people’s personal networks to be homogeneous across multiple characteristics. And thus be a source of more redundant information. This tendency is something that existed in our everyday lives before the advent of social media.

Do general purpose social platforms help us get away from this tendency to bond with similar people? Well, no. Yahoo Research studied Twitter usage patterns and found this:

We also find significant homophily within categories: celebrities listen to celebrities, while bloggers listen to bloggers etc

Strong ties are great for execution. The shorthand basis for communication, the background of experience and previously shared information and opinions pave the way for fast, easy knowledge transfer. But this is knowledge that is more sustaining in nature.

To take better advantage of peoples’ diverse knowledge and experiences, collaboration is going to evolve as crowdsourcing becomes increasingly pervasive.

New Collaboration Dynamics Emerge

As seen in the Google Trends chart below, crowdsourcing is a concept that is rapidly gaining traction:


Three elements of crowdsourcing will affect and broaden the nature of collaboration going forward.

Learning Opportunities

Engagement on Social Objects

Traditional collaboration revolves more around people. The ties to which you generally turn for advice. With crowdsourcing, the social object becomes the basis of engagement. Not the person.

Social objects are the basis for connecting people with like interests. On Flickr, it’s photos. In the enterprise, ideas are killer social objects. Ideas are particularly good for this purpose. Why? They often address pain points that others might feel, they affect multiple departments and there is nearly always more than one way to solve a problem.

In short, they offer powerful characteristics for complete strangers to engage one another. This willingness to forgo niceties and social courtesies is vital. Don’t worry whether you know that person who posted an idea or offered that feedback. Just get in there and contribute. Why? Because an idea turns into a project which affects your work. Why wouldn’t you engage around that?

Of course, this is the point. Get folks out of their “relational inertia” to create a more vibrant collaborative network. The culture of collaboration changes, where the expectation is that you will weigh in on complete strangers’ ideas. This willingness to do so addresses a significant cost identified by the researchers Fliaster and Spiess:

If we take into account that time efficiency is one of the most critical factors in innovation-based competition, then we see that the high costs of switching to another source of knowledge may have an detrimental effect on innovation activities and thus on the performance of individual innovators and organizations.

In other words, in a traditional collaboration culture, it is hard to get that information from someone who is not already a strong tie. The nice thing here is that people don’t have to commit to building out strong ties before they share information. The engagement and provision of information can be ephemeral.

Signals of Trust

Of course, discussions with strangers do create some trust issues for participants. How do you know the information provided can be trusted? Is there an agenda behind that contribution? The sorts of things that have been resolved through the effort of building your strong ties.

Remember my example at the start of this post, about the financial institution that wanted a LinkedIn style set of connections between users? One benefit of that is that the chain of referrals is one type of signal of trust. Not a great one, but a signal nonetheless.

Reputation Scores will become a more important signal in this crowdsourcing world. In the absence of strong ties as the basis for trust, reputation becomes more important in helping people understand your expertise and ability to help. Noted futurist Ross Dawson wrote this about the emergence of visible reputations:

What is changing is the extraordinary visibility of people’s actions and character and how others perceive them. One of the most valuable functions of the emerging ‘global brain’ that connects our insights is to make reputation more visible. For over a decade people have talked about how the internet is lowering transaction costs. Still today, the biggest single cost of business transactions is assessing the reputation of your potential business partner.

His point applies not just to professionals doing business between companies, but also to large collaborative networks built on crowdsourcing. Reputation -- and other signals of trust -- will become ever more important in the future of collaboration.

Communities of Purpose

The Yahoo Research study about Twitter, referenced earlier, is instructive. The lesson to draw is this:

If you create a general purpose community, people will naturally gravitate toward “people like me”. The issue of homophily will fundamentally affect the ability to access non-redundant information.

If there is no organizing purpose, the default purpose will be to cement those strong ties. Communities engaging via microblogging applications, for instance, reflect that.

Ever heard of “communities of practice”? Well, I think CoP should stand for "communities of purpose". Bring both deep expertise and bits of diverse knowledge together toward a tangible outcome

The tangible outcomes, the results orientation, is a powerful influence on getting collaboration beyond the strong ties on which we all rely. The fact that there will be action at the end of community collaborations is a great inducement to engage complete strangers. It also puts the focus more around the social objects of that community. Both of these elements are part of the new crowdsourcing landscape.

Final Thoughts

In sum, collaboration has always been something that happened primarily with your strong ties. New social tools have broadened the realm of collaboration, but people continue to exhibit self-imposed network constraints that hurt organizational innovation. The increasing use of crowdsourcing is going to change that dynamic to the benefit of both individuals and organizations.


About the author

Hutch Carpenter

Hutch Carpenter is the VP of Products for Spigit. Spigit provides the SaaS enterprise platform for innovation management, accelerating and broadening innovation through communities, collaboration, collective intelligence, analytics and workflow.

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