Far From the Madding Crowd—Crowdsourcing Comes of Age at CrowdConf 2012

I have to confess—I am a big Thomas Hardy fan.  And I can’t help but to suggest that his protagonist, Bathsheba Everdine, may have been one of the earlier adopters of crowdsourcing—though probably the Egyptian pyramid builders should be (more appropriately and much less controversially) cited as such.  ...but I digress.

Early this week, I attended CrowdConf 2012 (the 3rd such annual conference) organized by CrowdFlower, a leading “crowd platform service provider” that describes itself as “the leading microtask crowdsourcing platform, offering quality-ensured crowdsourcing solutions at unprecedented scale.”  One clear take away from this conference was that the reality and use of “crowd solutions,” of all kinds, are also reaching unprecedented scale. 

In his opening conference address, Crowdflower CEO, Lukas Biewald, emphasized the growth that his company and others in the industry were now starting to experience.  We are now seeing “massive adoption of crowdsourcing,” he proclaimed.  “2012 is a really big year.”  As an example he cited Infoarmy, which recently raised $17.4M in investment capital.

Experts, such a Ross Dawson (author of the excellent business book, Getting Results from Crowds) and Professor David Alan Grier (George Washington University) and many others (from Microsoft, etc.) were also on hand as speakers and panelists to offer their theoretical and research perspectives on crowdsourcing and its potential. 

A large number of fast-growing, crowd-supplying firms, ranging from 1-1 task/worker matchers (like oDesk and Elance) to firms with even more complex models like (Servio, ServicePower, LionBridge, Crowdsource, Maven Research, VirtualBee, microWorkers, and TalentHouse, et al), were also out in full-force, strutting their stuff and flexing their increasingly powerful muscles.  In addition, Investment Capital Firms were also present, sponsoring and scanning for new opportunities and leads.

What this all means is that “work” is starting to be done in many new different ways, made possible and “intermediated” by innovative technology-enabled platforms (what I call e-platforms).  Beyond the now well-known methods of temporary labor, outsourcing, and even remotely-performed, online-freelancer work (such as through oDesk or Elance) is a fast-growing approach to work that can be done by impersonal swarms of workers, even broken-down into so-called “microtasks” that can be accomplished by crowds of individuals and then even reassembled into a larger work product or service.  Crowdsourcing methods (including worldwide contests and challenges) can be employed to accomplish many activities, from the most simplistic (e.g. identifying objects or faces in photo images) to the moderately complex (e.g. performing a language translation or writing a software program) to what might surpass normal individual and team capabilities (e.g. a scientific discovery or an extraordinary innovation). 

There seem to be two main outcomes of the rise of crowdsourcing: (1) some work that has been previously getting performed will now be getting performed in new ways and (2) work that has not been previously performed at all (either because it was uneconomical or simply infeasible) will now be accomplished (expanding the overall amount of work which is being performed in the world).  

If the staffing industry today is essentially made up of different kinds of “labor/talent intermediaries,” then we probably should pay attention and note that a new sibling has been born and is outgrowing the nursery.

Crowdsourcing can be viewed as a threat and/or an opportunity from the traditional staffing industry perspective.  In some segments, such as in IT staffing (software development) and Creative staffing (for example), the threat is very clear and imminent!  But a shadow should not be cast over the potential opportunity.  I spoke with one owner of a Creative Agency who explained to me how his firm had started a crowdsourcing line of business for creative work.  His attitude:  “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.” 

My main take-aways from CrowdConf 2012, pertaining to crowd work, staffing, workforce/work arrangement intermediation:

  • Crowdsourcing has come of age and is rapidly becoming a mainstream way in which businesses are getting significant work accomplished. 
  • The level of investment, the progress, the research, and the brains in this new industry segment cannot be disregarded or dismissed—critical mass is being reached.  Various types of work will be shifted out of the hands of permanent and contingent workers, and completely new (previously undone) volumes of work will be generated.
  • The staffing industry cannot ignore this new sibling and the threats and opportunities it presents for business.  This is certainly true, and most critical, in IT and Creative segments, as well as perhaps in Clinical Research, Engineering, and perhaps others. 
  • Still crowdsourcing is a young segment, and there is still much to be learned and optimized by “crowd service/solution providers” (crowd work intermediaries) and “crowd service buyers.”   So it is not too late, one could say, to join this crowd. 

Besides Ross Dawson’s book (cited above), additional ways to learn more can be found at www.crowdsourcing.org and www.crowdsortium.com

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