Innovation crowdsourcing is a business practice that engages the crowds with the goal of generating ideas and co-creating solutions within an end-to-end innovation process. This practice does not actually outsource innovation activities but connects teams with multiple knowledge sources to deliver better innovation results.
Ever since P&G started a revolution by introducing open innovation models, hundreds of corporations have decided to build online platforms to engage the crowds. However, achieving an efficient innovation crowdsourcing is not so easy.
In this article, we wanted to share some tips to help executives with their initiatives. This knowledge comes from our background helping many multinationals to deliver tangible results through innovation crowdsourcing.
If you want to know more about our experience, you can check out here some of the challenges we solved in different industries such as Automotive, High-Tech, Construction, Mining, Manufacturing, and Utilities.
Tip #1: Select the right challenges for crowdsourcing
Many challenges can indeed be crowdsourced but this does not mean that one specific crowd can solve all kinds of problems. There is an inherent uncertainty associated with crowdsourcing, in the sense that companies do not know if they are going to get an answer by the end of their initiative. The truth is that there are some challenges with a crowd-friendly nature that will get higher engagement than others.
For example, last year, we launched an innovation challenge for cleaning the windows of skyscrapers. The associated problem is quite simple to understand, and quite attractive for robotics fans. The participation rate was very high and this challenge pulled 100 participants.
Another example is a different challenge we launched to reduce the cost in furfural manufacturing, which is not as attractive and much more difficult to solve. As a matter of fact, furfural manufacturing is a very specific process that does not have as many devoted experts in the world as robotics. The required effort level is higher since it is necessary to understand the furfural manufacturing process to come up with a good solution. As a result, the participation rate was much lower, under 20 people.
Tip #2: Define the challenge correctly
Sometimes, the problems to be solved can be either very specific or too generic. As an example, a challenge to make railway transportation more sustainable can be perceived by the crowd as too abstract. Instead, a challenge to reduce the weight of a particular train will bring very different results, and this contributions will be more tangible. In fact, our suggestion to companies that face big challenges is to always break them down into smaller and less abstract problems, to make them more understandable (or solvable) for the crowd.
The other way around can also happen, and companies start to tackle a challenge from a very specific angle. In this case, our suggestion would be to make it more flexible / open to get a broader variety of solutions. As an example, not long ago, we met a company that had quality problems drying their paper bags. The company wanted to continue drying bags while stocked in pallets but the hot air could not reach the middle bags. Finally, we suggested to approach the challenge differently and accept drying solutions at any point during the manufacturing process.
Tip #3: Select the right crowd
The number of solvers participating in a crowdsourcing effort matters but the quality of the delivered ideas is even more important. As we explained in the article ‘How to select the right Open Innovation platform’, a few years ago, when BP launched an open call to solve the Deepwater platform challenge, 123,000 people responded from more than 100 countries. However, despite the large number of proposals received, none of them delivered great results.
Our suggestion is that, depending on the nature of your challenge, you approach one crowd of specialists or another: Developing a new algorithm would need the mind of a mathematician, the design of a new app requires software coding, and the development of an IoT device for monitoring dust in mining can be primarily done through electronic engineers.
Tip #4: Offer an attractive reward
A good reward is fundamental to get a good participation rate, but more importantly, to attract the best-performing solvers from a crowd. In other words, if your company is not ready to compensate the contributions of external people, you should stop trying innovation crowdsourcing because it will never work. This does not mean that you need to offer huge cash prizes, compensation is a set of different rewards that can include cash money but also IP sharing, peer recognition, etc.
As an example, a few years ago we launched a challenge to find a solution to reduce sand accumulation on the high-speed train railway tracks crossing the desert. The budget was not very big, and so we suggested to share the IP rights of the winning solutions. The participation rate was very good, and we learned that many people like to earn some cash, but at the same time, they are interested in their inventions getting to the market.
Tip #5: Give participants some feedback
Effective Innovation Crowdsourcing is not all about throwing a question to the crowd and gathering answers, it is also about collaboration and engaging people for compensation or reward. The real value behind a crowd is the engagement you manage to create.
When a company wants to use innovation crowdsourcing just for marketing purposes, it will most likely fail in the long term. Engagement cannot be built for a single challenge, it is a continuous activity that needs to happen challenge after challenge.
Therefore, for your crowdsourcing initiatives, you should be willing to create discussion forums, to receive questions and feedback about every single challenge. Thanks to the engagement with the members of our community, we have learnt that multiple-round challenges perform better than single-round ones and the need to provide feedback to all challenge participants. Take care of your community, even if it means making big efforts because they will ultimately help you solve your innovation challenges.