Changes in Online Community Thinking #2

Posted: 17/10/2013 in crowdsourcing, online community

Last week I started to outline what has changed – and what has not – in the online-community landscape during the last five years. The first posting was about sticking to the over-reliance on communication technology and neglecting community.

Next, I will turn into one notable difference: the rise of crowdsourcing, as labelled by Jeff Howe whose original article on Wired magazine was published in 2006.

Since, we have seen myriad of events, discussions, cases and research papers starting with ”crowd-”. Crowdsourcing.org site provides a nice set of resources, events and examples related to crowdsourcing and crowdfunding. As my background is in knowledge management – coupled with innovation management – my approach here is how crowdsourcing could benefit organizational innovativeness and boost new knowledge creation. You might check my earlier article on the issue including some well-known examples.

But in the days when I was finalizing my thesis, there was hardly any research concerning crowdsourcing. It seems that some pioneering studies were published one year later, such as the paper by Jan Marco Leimeister et al. (2009) on leveraging crowdsourcing and IT-based idea competitions.

Naturally, the history of such competitions within organizations is a long one, as well as the general idea of a thousand pairs of eyes seeing more than one pair. The difference is that we now have a globally distributed group of knowledgeable individuals, who may connect with each other and the hosting organizations using communication technology – with wide reach and low cost.

The only notion about ”crowd” in my thesis concerned the above-mentioned wisdom of crowds. On page 33, I outlined four different perspectives to knowledge:

  1. Information, i.e. codified data carrying a meaning
  2. Knowledge as human property, i.e. expertise embedded in the mind of an invididual – from where it is aimed to be extracted e.g. to expert systems
  3. Knowledge as collective property, i.e. a jointly produced ”package” of knowledge, accumulating information and producing a valuable outcome relying on the wisdom of the crowd
  4. Knowledge as collective action, i.e. the practice of knowing; here, knowledge exists among community members within a specific domain.

Information is about understanding, the following two types are about possessing, while the last one is about doing. Wikipedia is a perfect example on knowledge as collective property, a concrete manifestation of crowd action – and perhaps a social innovation as such. However, firms also need to gain competitive advantage and the gate to such advantage is in knowledge as collective action: in a set of different communities, which are unique and as such cannot be shared, copied or imitated.

So, for an online-community researcher or practitioner, if communities are key, why is crowdsourcing even an interesting phenomena?

Firstly, it provides a fascinating challenge on how and when to make an anonymous, large mass of geographically scattered users, customers, hobbyists or product enthusiasts into a collective sharing a common objective and interacting meaningfully to reach such an outcome. How to establish a proper online infrastructure? What motivates users? How could their interactions be supported and facilitated?

Secondly, crowds come into play when communities may not be an optimal choice. And vice versa, communities are needed, when an anonymous crowd is not enough.

Let me open up the latter more in detail. The history of online communities within sociology, communication research and psychology is mainly about relatively tight couplings engaging in continuous interactions, developing relationships, supporting each other, meeting offline, and sometimes becoming almost like family members. (If you need concrete examples, please message me, cannot list everything in one posting 🙂 . This raises up the same challenge as in any community: members develop a strong identity, become self-protective, and are not able to renew themselves. In a similar vein, online communities of brand/product enthusiasts may suffer from ”lack of vision”.

A nice example comes from recent crowdsourcing research. Barry Bayus studied a combination of an online community and crowdsourcing – Dell’s IdeaStorm – and found out that serial ideators were likely to provide feasible ideas, but unlikely to be able to repeat their earlier success. This may be no news for innovation management professionals, but it has implications for how to structure your user-centered innovation online.

As we noted in ISPIM conference session on crowdsourcing last June, crowdsourcing may help organizations to find an appropriate community sharing an interest to the issue or task at hand:

But when the community becomes too tight, it may be beneficial to start targeting fully new crowds to gain new insight.

To conclude, it seems that organizations need capabilities to balance between crowdsourcing mode and community mode. The most valuable new ideas often do not reside within the firm – they derive from a wise crowd. The question thus is when to organize as a community, and when as an anonymous crowd. My advice would be concerning the type of knowledge/problem at hand – and I am hoping to continue with studying this issue much further.

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  1. […] The first one dealt with the over-reliance on communication technology and the second one was about the rise of crowdsourcing. Now I will turn into the communication platforms […]

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