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Crowdsourcing: Serial participants end up proposing less diverse ideas

12 January 2012

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Right after writing that blog post about crowdsourcing at Dell, I read an interesting piece of research about participation in the Dell Ideastorm crowdsourcing-platform. The paper is authored by Barry L. Bayus an d will be published in Management Science in the next months (see the first version, and the second version – by the way, it’s a great way to see how mauch a paper evolves durring the reviewing process). While it has not been published yet, the findings are interesting to look at, because they’re among the first ones to analyze participation in crowdsourcing over time. And it seems that there are challenges ahead for Dell…

The key question of whether the supply of quality ideas can be sustained by an ongoing crowdsouring community over time

Target Marketing had noticed this research months ago, I wonder why it hasn’t received much attention. Bayus’ objective is to explore “the nature of an individual‘s ideation efforts in a crowdsourcing community over time“. More and more companies are indeed building up co-innovation platform to get people’s ideas, and I’ve talked about some of them (Tchibo Ideas in Germany or B’Twin Lab in France). “Companies are very interested in ongoing crowdsourcing communities because consumers […] are intrinsically motivated to freely contribute their ideas“, Bayus says in the introduction of his paper. But having a platform is good, having a constant stream of fresh ideas is better

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Both the number of IDEAS and the number of IDEATORS lowers over time

By analyzing 2 years of public data taken from www.ideastorm.com, Bayus wants to find out whether continuous participation eventually leads to less diverse ideas. And the answer is YES. Here’s a very brief list of the findings:

  • Almost 85% of participants submitted only one idea, and most ideas are submitted by so-called “serial ideators”
  • Only 5% of participants proposed good ideas (i.e. ideas that were eventually implemented by Dell)
  • When someone submits a good idea, the diversity of the next submitted ideas lowers, as well as the likelihood of submitting another good idea

In other words:

Dell‘s future supply of quality ideas may be drying up

After generating huge buzz, Dell’s Ideastorm has to find ways to keep getting good ideas. Bayus’ paper indeed shows that “individuals in the crowd are unlikely to generate additional implemented ideas once some of their ideas are implemented” ; in other words “ideators in an ongoing crowdsourcing community tend to fixate on their past success by generating less diverse ideas that are similar to their previous implemented ideas“. In psychology, numerous studies find that cumulative knowledge is positively related to someone’s creativty… but these results show that this is not the case here!

This finding is consistent with experimental research on cognitive fixation: people tend to fixate on the principles and features of their prior ideas that have been implemented

Another piece of research explains this decrease of submitted ideas (see chart here) by the fact that people get discouraged: they overestimate the potential of their ideas and underestimate Dell’s actual ability to implement them. Hence, you need to keep people motivated, and you need to make them think out of their box. How do you do that? One way is to organize challenges or contests, and Dell called them Storm Sessions.

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Bayus calls them “hyper-focused idea-generation sessions” and says that “these sessions have the potential to reduce fixation effects”. Challenges are exactly what permanent contest-platforms like eYeka, Jovoto or Zooppa do to keep their communities of creatives vibrant and active. It seems that brand have discovered this technique for their own, branded ideation-platforms: the B’Twin has challenges around cycling (even though it looks dead and B’Twin launched a project with Local Motors), Nokia has challenges around mobile technology (which also doesn’t seem to be online anymore) … can you think of others?

These findings highlight some of the difficulties in maintaining an ongoing supply of quality ideas from the crowd over time, and emphasize the need for more research on crowdsourcing communities

To build on Bayus’ findings, it’s worthwhile reading this RWW article about the release of IdeaStrom 2.0 – the new version of the ideation site. While they don’t take about peoples’ tendency to propose less diverse ideas over time, they seem to have understood that commenting is an important aspect of the site’s activity, and that great ideas come from interactions: “We learned that ideas don’t happen in a vacuum, and there aren’t just single points of inspiration but we need to have a culture of innovation that encourages iterations and mashups of ideas“, says Bill Johnston, Dell’s Director of Global Online Communities. Similarly, Kraft recently reviewed its Open Innovation platform to focus it around “briefs”, instead of of just waiting for people to submit unsollicited ideas. According to a recent paper, 88% of firm-initiated Open Innovation platforms now use competitions and open calls to stimulate inbound open innovation.

This echoes Barry’s finding that the negative effect of past success (he fact that people contribute less and with less diverse ideas) are somewhat mitigated for ideators with diverse commenting activity. Innovation is social!

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