The Wisdom and Dumbness of Crowds
Crowdsourcing got some good PR recently, from a place not lately associated with good PR: BP. The disgraced oil company set up a website where people can suggest ways to clean up the spill. It seems to have borne fruit. Meanwhile, a Princeton scientist is working on a way to sort through bajillions of crowdsourced ideas and find the good ones.
Naturally, as soon as something takes off, there are others who focus on its limitations. Fast Company points out that you can’t tackle complex problems with crowdsourcing.
Crowdsourcing relies on the assumption that the public will be able to produce better ideas, or in this case, at least ones the government has yet considered. But lawmakers can’t pass bills simply because they’ve captured public opinion–legislation today is so complicated that it’s perhaps beyond the public’s capacity to offer a fix.
Soliciting ideas from the public is an excellent way to expose new possibilities. It works very well in environments where new factors might exist that haven’t yet been uncovered – such as all the possible ways of cleaning oil out of sand.
Crowdsourcing doesn’t work when the problem is one of alignment, as with public policy decisions, particularly when the issues are complex. To get this alignment, deep listening and explorations of trade-offs are needed, something crowd sourcing does not provide.
There’s a danger that crowdsourcing will get overpraised, and then denigrated as a fad and discarded. That comes from treating crowdsourcing as a solution. It’s not – it’s one tool in your toolset. Use it right, and it will serve you well.