From outsourcing to crowdsourcing

Charlene Li sparked a bit of controversy by crowdsourcing her Logo using CrowdSPRING. Designers protested that services like CrowdSpring and 99Designs take work away from them and that you can’t get the same level of quality. Charlene’s colleague, Jeremiah Owyang, commented on the controversy on his blog and defended Charlene’s action pointing out that this is phenomenon is here to stay and that it makes complete sense for Charlene to tap into this type of service.

 

Why is this controversial? Well, crowdsourcing is disruptive in a  similar way that outsourcing was. Just like outsourcing, crowdsourcing is an organizational change that impacts production models and revenue structures. Here’s Jeff Howe’s definition of crowdsourcing:

 

“the act of taking a job traditionally performed by a designated agent (usually an employee) and outsourcing it to an undefined, generally large group of people in the form of an open call.”

 

The big implication here is that when a task/job gets taken to the larger “crowd” the production cost also gets reduced and so does the revenue. Hence, crowdsourcing is an attractive and affordable solution particularly for simple and discrete tasks like designing a logo (vs. an entire identity system). This is not necessarily a bad thing, but let’s not fool ourselves: Crowdsourcing is absolutely disrupting the design industry (and many more to come).

 

When we do business with an agency, we hire their organizational ability to manage creative talent, all the paperwork that goes with that, even the people that help us define and articulate what is that we want (account managers) and ultimately we hire the reliability of a group of people (if an individual falters the organization will deliver). But what happens when all this can be set up in a different way that is cheaper and more convenient? Wouldn’t you try it? Of course you would! Just like many organizations tried outsourcing. Some of them did it quite successfully, some of them had disastrous experiences. And I can guarantee this is already happening in crowdsourcing.

 

The factors that would prevent you from crowdsourcing are not so different from the ones that would prevent you from outsourcing:

 

a) the result is not up to the quality you expect 

 

b) the experience is more complicated than you expect (CrowdSPRING certainly emphasizes the easiness of the process, it’s just a 1-2-3- step)

 

c) you have a problem with a level of complexity that cannot be crowdsourced (complexity limitations will continually be challenged as crowdsourcing becomes more popular).

 

Jeremiah says that this may represent more demand for design services and that higher quality will always survive. My belief is that this is true, but you also need to understand that crowdsourcing represents a fundamental change in production models. You need to adapt and start experimenting with new ways of generating revenue because the business will not stay the same — whether you are a freelancer or a larger organization.  One way is to join the movement and lead the way into crowdsourcing for your field by helping people manage this change, evaluate results, set it up, understand it, etc. This is how photographers and many journalists are surviving the revenue erosion in their fields. Think what programmers did when the outsourcing craze hit the late 90s/early 00s.

 

And make no mistake, just like outsourcing started with the programmers and call centers and then it spread to accounting and many other functions — so will crowdsourcing. Much more experimentation is going to come with more sophisiticated ways to manage the ‘crowd’ in many fields. Product and visual design are just the beginning.

 

As Clay Shirky says in his book, when we change the way we communicate we change the way we organize society.  So the worst we can do is ignore it and second worst is to resist it. What we CAN do is open up and figure out what opportunities and changes crowdsourcing brings to our field of business …hmm, maybe we should crowdsource that too.

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