Creating a concrete deliverable together is straightforward: split up the task, contribute parts and combine them to construct the complete deliverable. Even this will take coordination and skill to accomplish, but at least it is a concrete and often measurable task. Ideation, creating new ideas together or creating “innovation” is a lot less concrete. Ideas are hard to plan, measure or manage. Yet continuous innovation is what makes a company profitable. So how does collaboration help innovation? The answer to this question lies in “crowdsourcing innovation” or “open innovation”: involving a larger than usual group of individuals in company innovation

Crowdsourcing innovation is a unique form of collaboration where anyone with a stake in a product or service can contribute to defining and improving that product or service. Consumers work with producers to create products that best serve the consumers’ needs. Employees can be invited to help improve the inner workings of an organization, but will also be challenged to come up with ways to create better value for the end consumer. Almost any creative process can be crowdsourced to benefit from the creativity of the crowd: logo design, chemical research challenges, architecture design, product development, writing and others.

Innovation is not the only thing that can be crowdsourced: the production of deliverables can also be tendered to “the crowd.” The most specific example of this may be in software development where on TopCoder.com “the crowd” can build software to requirements.

Collaboration with the Crowd for Innovation

In a scenario where a company is looking to crowdsource parts of their research and development, the aim is to allow the best ideas and solutions to surface almost automatically. The company would achieve this by posting their challenge online and inviting people to post suggestions. Usually this is done by providing a very free-format platform where ideas can be posted, commented on by others then cataloged and rated by the people online. The creators and the people who do the rating may not be the same people, but will be part of the same community.

Depending on the size of an organization, crowdsourcing can also be initiated strictly within company boundaries: not involving the general public but asking employees to take part. While the principles might be generally the same, the implementation will be different. For one thing, internet scale is different than company scale. If 1% of your internet audience responds, that is a large group of people responding. If 1% of your employees respond, it is less likely that the next greatest idea will be born. The most successful crowdsourcing initiatives involve the internet, invite the general public to contribute, and have a clearly defined “challenge.”

The reward for contributing to this collaboration might be anything from “eternal fame” (if your suggestion could become the name of the latest Coca-Cola product, that might be enough motivation to take part) to a monetary award or some other incentive. The open source software community teaches us that financial reward is definitely not essential for

to gain a marketing position or attract future clients, or to build corporate image by showing you are committed to “improve the world.” Many companies don’t expect immediate returns but act on a kind of “pay it forward”[1] principle. The collaborative projects the companies enter into can also be on a wide range of subjects, from the creation of software to solving world problems, from creating books to collaboratively finding innovative solutions to industry problems.

The idea is that the wider the search for ideas, the greater the chance that good ideas will be found, the greater the chance that good ideas may be profitably combined, and the better the ultimate product or service. (In turn, a better product may demand a higher price). If I could enlist everybody in the world to help me solve a problem, or even just everybody on the internet, I am sure that someone out there would be able to give me a solution almost instantly. However, there is a catch: involving many more people would only be manageable if I did not have to handle coordinating and interacting with all of them. If I must personally deal with every idea, I will never find the good ideas among the not-so-good.

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