Crowdsourcing: the democratization of organizational production

Steve Kelman argues there's more than just cost-benefit analysis behind the growing use of ground-up knowledge sharing.

steve kelman

I recently read a short piece called "Soldiers to help crowdsource spy maps." The article, by Aliya Sternstein, discussed plans to complement satellite imagery by crowdsourcing data transmitted from soldiers venturing into loosely charted spots.

"Every soldier is a sensor," Jennifer Ivey, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Army Geospatial Center, was quoted as saying. "Wherever they are sent to do their mission, they collect data to improve situational awareness." The Army is actually seeking budget money for such activities in 2017.

When I read Sternstein's report, I was immediately reminded of my own recent blog post on the social intranet. Informal information sharing among colleagues, I noted in that post, is an important way knowledge gets created within an organization that long predates the Internet. The social intranet is a twenty-first century version of the water cooler, using technology to spread messages more widely and in a more systematic way. And "crowdsourcing" is just a different word for the same phenomenon.

The mapping piece quotes a deputy director of the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency making a similar point: "The Army, in essence, has been crowdsourcing geodata since soldiers began fighting wars, but now there are new databases that can more easily capture the data and push it out to troops. ... What a great idea if we can get our soldiers adding fidelity to the maps and operational picture that we already have."

So water cooler plus technology equals crowdsourcing.

As I reflected a bit further, I realized that the word "crowdsourcing" has a philosophical bite that "social intranet" doesn't. The Mergel report on the social intranet I discussed in my post presents it as an alternative source of information and advice -- both to the water cooler and to mass email distribution. The former mechanism is more decentralized and democratic, while the latter uses traditional organizational hierarchies.

The word "crowdsourcing" definitely implies what we may call a democratization of organizational production. It is associated with the idea of "the wisdom of crowds," that ordinary people in aggregate are likely to be better sources of information and prediction that a few experts at the top of the organization. Crowdsourcing privileges ordinary people over those at the top of our institutions.

I think it's fair to say that American culture has a special proclivity for the kinds of bottom-up approaches represented by crowdsourcing or a social intranet. Why? An important reason is of course pragmatic – crowdsourcing, or the social intranet, can provide more and better information in aggregate than more hierarchical forms of knowledge development and dissemination.

But I think there is also a reason that the idea of crowdsourcing developed in the US and has its biggest home here. Our culture has faith in ordinary people more than just about any other in the world. A reason we like crowdsourcing is that it affirms the standing and dignity of the little guy against those at the top -- not just because it may provide more or better information to an organization. I will confess that this underlies my own instinctive attraction to the idea.

I contrast this with the dominant view in China, which I visited again recently. The idea of crowdsourcing doesn't fit the dominant Chinese culture. When Chinese leaders think about ordinary people interacting with, say, the Internet, they worry the people will create problems, not opportunities. They worry about spreading "rumors" on the Internet, about people becoming panicked, about social chaos. They would rather have information flow down, not bubble up from the bottom.

We are different. I like to think we are right.

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