Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Crowdsourcing and the Value of Expertise...

Wired and Assignment Zero have posted several articles this week all related to one central theme... crowdsourcing. For those of you not "in the know", crowdsourcing refers to an emerging business model where a company's problems are posted publicly on the internet, encouraging the masses to contribute ideas for them, rather than hiring experts for huge sums of money. It is the open source model familiar to programmers, but practiced in a non-technical environment. But as volunteer collaborators increasingly shape decision-making, what becomes of the value of expertise in the Internet Society?

To clarify, think of the Wikipedia example - an online encyclopedia where the public has voluntarily contributed all the entries, references, and other content, and it has basically run the expert-driven traditional encyclopedias into extinction. In the past, companies may have hired a team of consultants for strategic advice in, say, telecommunications deployment. Now, however, that same firm might choose instead to post a Wikipedia entry on the topic and let the results pour in. There are plenty more examples along the same lines in the fields of journalism, book writing, art, and photography, to name just a few.

But while this trend in the business community towards crowdsourcing is a fascinating development, do crowds really produce better results than experts?

I know what you're saying at this point, and this really does seem so counter-intuitive to most of our understandings of the world. To put this in perspective, crowdsourcing logic would suggest that baseball teams should no longer hire managers, but just allow the daily lineups be set according to what the internet voting public recommends - AND that the public would more often be right than the managers!

However, one thing that crowdsourcing supporters don't often mention is that many of their volunteer contributors tend to actually be either experts or well-versed hobbyists with strong interests in that field already. While a company's problem might be put out there to the public to answer, typically it's only a tiny fragment of the public with expertise (or pretty near to it) that ultimately respond. As a result, statements of how the mass public and "the wisdom of crowds" can drive business decision-making are somewhat misleading, and ought to be taken with a grain of salt.

No, crowds do not produce better results than experts. However, if the question relates to value, then yes, crowds will often produce results that are of good enough quality to justify using them instead of high priced experts and consulting firms.

In the end, there remains a strong role for expertise in our society that is not so easily replaced. And for those of you who simply like to play with the idea, here's something to chew on: Would you feel more comfortable leaving decision-making responsibilities in the hands of "the crowd" (a.k.a, the mob), or non-feeling but also non-biased and more objective computer systems?

Hasta la vista.


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