With Benefits and Downside, Crowdsourcing May or May Not Outdo Experts

Crowdsourcing entails seeking input via an open call to a large group of people, rather than solely tapping traditional experts or employees. Crowdsourcing has both benefits and downside.

A recent Wall Street Journal article (“The Benefits of Crowdsourcing”, October 30, 2014) makes some excellent points about the value of using crowdsourcing as a way for start-up companies to solve problems and get ideas. Yet, readers who scan quickly may miss the article’s brief mention of crowdsourcing’s downside. These readers may come away with too rosy a view of crowdsourcing.

Of course, based upon the title, readers would expect the article to stress crowdsourcing’s advantages–and it does. Still, the article also briefly states that sometimes crowdsourcing’s “shared information may be half baked”, but this is a point that at-a-glance readers might easily miss. With “The Benefits of Crowdsourcing” as the title, and with a prominent subheading saying “Why Armies of People Are Superior to Experts”, readers who scan the article can easily be left with an overly rosy view of crowdsourcing.

Nonetheless, after that subheading, the article offers an excellent discussion of the valuable benefits of tapping the diversity of the crowd, rather than being limited solely to what experts might offer. And, there certainly can be value in that diversity. Furthermore, if readers go to the October 27 Wall Street Journal blog post from which the article excerpts, there is an excellent discussion with some examples of crowdsourcing.

Yet, I find that both the blog post and the article overemphasize the value of crowdsourcing and are excessively negative about the value of experts. According to my information, it is not always clear cut that the crowd is superior to the experts. Nor are experts always superior to the crowd. I find that both experts and non-experts alike may be able to contribute useful knowledge to a start-up. And, the appropriate blend of expert versus non-expert input depends upon the circumstances.

In fact, I see parallels between this discussion of start-ups and what I wrote my most recent newsletter at the end of September. In that newsletter, I wrote the article “Industry Experience for Corporate Boards: Both a Powerful Advantage and a Double-Edged Sword”. Likewise, the concept of a co-existing “powerful advantage” and “doubled-edged sword” also applies to how prior expertise affects start-ups.

Start-ups can be more successful if founders have worked in or had solid exposure to the industry before launching their business. There can also be value in learning from those who have expertise that founders may lack. And, even start-ups that defy industry traditions can often benefit from some expert input. On the other hand, experienced experts can easily be too tied to the status quo or have a herd mentality that leaves them unable to grasp emerging opportunities. Thus, it is important to get a good blend that combines the emerging new direction of the start-up with any valuable existing expertise.

Thus, prior expertise–whether from experts who are brought in or from the founders, themselves–can be a powerful advantage for a start-up. But, it can also be a double-edged sword in that it may be too tied to the status quo. Similarly, not being an expert offers the advantage of potentially being able to see emerging new opportunities that might never occur to most traditional experts. But, it’s also a double edged sword in that non-experts may be missing crucial elements required for a successful start-up. And, unless they somehow obtain that expertise, the business may suffer.

That’s why the article “The Benefits of Crowdsourcing” with its prominent subheading “Why Armies of People are Superior to the Experts” can easily leave readers too enamored with getting input from the crowd. Yes, the crowd may have something valuable to offer that traditional experts might not. But, it’s important to weigh the situation and determine how to best blend experts and non-experts depending upon the circumstances. Both can offer powerful advantages, yet both can be a double edged sword.

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