Overcoming Limitations and Exploiting Opportunities of Crowdsourcing

Over the past few years, crowdsourcing has received a lot of attention as it proved to be a solution for business and organizational needs in a geographically-unaffected distributed workforce that can complete any task on demand and at scale. There have been numerous examples of paid crowd work being able to improve productivity, social mobility, and the global economy but experts believe that there is a danger of focusing too much on assembly-line piece work, instead of crowd work achieving its full potential.

Defining  Crowdsourcing

Crowdsourcing, by definition, is to rapidly mobilize a large number of individuals in order to accomplish tasks, usually those that are large enough to require a massive workforce. It is basically outsourcing tasks to a crowd, hence the name. Crowdsourcing can either be paid or volunteer-based, with the most popular example of the latter being the online knowledge repository, Wikipedia, which relies on thousands of individual contributors from all over the globe for the updates, maintenance, and proofing of its content.

Paid crowd work has also seen a lot of implementations these past few years, with the industry showing signs of growth in both scope and ambition as commercial vendors start to open the doors to a wide swathe of pay and skill levels. A great example of paid crowd sourcing is Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, where any individual with access to the Internet can be paid for performing micro-tasks that take anywhere from seconds to hours to complete. For the more skilled workers, there are also professional online marketplaces like eLance or oDesk that take advantage of manpower scattered all over the globe in order to solve R&D challenges on open innovation platforms.

While it’s true that not every kind of job can be outsourced, many jobs that are categorized as such have portions that can be performed by a crowd over the net. Many experts foresee a future in which crowd work opportunities will continue to expand and unlock an incredible number of opportunities for careers and skilled work in online marketplaces.

However, the experts also posit that there is a risk involved. Namely that of crowd work falling into an intellectual framing that is focused on low-cost results and labor exploitation, which opens up a whole can of worms, including reduced visibility and communication channels, and employees being treated as expendable and untrustworthy as they start maintaining low or stagnating skill sets alongside a strong motivation to shirk.

On the worker’s side, they also have a tendency to become more cynical due to having fewer connections and relationships with coworkers, as well as enforceable contracts and power compared to traditional workplaces. These concerns will only get more noticed as they are driven to the forefront once the crowd sourcing industry continues to grow. 

Paid Online Crowd Work

Crowd sourcing can be applied to various industries, which is why there are numerous terminologies coined, such as collective intelligence, human computation, peer production, and citizen science. However, the most prevalent form of crowd sourcing is paid online crowd work, where tasks are requested by individuals or organizations and distributed online, which are then picked up by crowd workers who are financially compensated upon completion.  In this case, crowd work can be defined as a socio-technical work system constituted through a set of relationships that connect organizations, individuals, work activities, and technologies.

Pros and Cons

According to The Future of Crowd Work by Aniket Kittur, Jeffrey V. Nickerson, Michael S. Bernstein, Elizabeth M. Gerber, Aaron Shaw, John Zimmerman, Matthew Lease and John J. Horton, one of the biggest benefits of crowd work is its ability to support a flexible workforce while mitigating various manpower challenges, such as shortages of workers in specific areas of specialization and geographical location. For the individuals, crowd work will also bring about new opportunities for income and social mobility in regions of the world where the local economy is stagnating and investment is discouraged by equally stagnant local governmental structures.

However, crowd work can be a double-edged sword in and of itself, as it also has the ability to diminish the quality of life on the workers’ side. Labor abuse could run rampant due to the extremely low pay in a lot of marketplaces (Amazon’s Mechanical Turk reportedly pays an average of $2/hour), as well as the lack of benefits or worker protections. The piecework compensation used in crowd work markets provides ample opportunity for gaming behavior, which negatively influences the quality of the output. Additionally, Crow Work can be used to devote massive amounts of manpower towards achieving questionable goals, such as breaking captchas, mining virtual goods in games in exchange for real world cash (defined as “gold farming”), and even to locate dissidents.

Crowd Work also has the potential to displace current on-site workers, even in skilled labor, as the tasks can be easily divided into smaller and smaller tasks that are then outsourced to crowd workers. Various tasks such as audio transcription and copyediting are now being accomplished with crowd labor, and even complex tasks such as writing, translation, and product design can be outsourced to novice crowd workers if there are proper process design and technological support available.

Crowd Labor Platforms Changing the Way Businesses Operate

Crowd labor platforms remain as one of the less visible variants of crowdsourcing, despite the significant benefits it affords to businesses and individuals all over the globe. However, it may change in the near future, according to experts.

There are currently two dominant crowd labor platforms, both of which gained prominence during the past decade. First is the freelance matchmaking platform, and the other is crowdsourcing platforms that divvy up tasks into smaller, piecemeal microtasks and distributes them to large pools of workers. Each model occupies specific sectors of the industry and provides specific advantages as well as disadvantages.

Freelance Matchmaking Platforms, such as oDesk and eLance, allow companies (or job contractors) and the workers to connect and build meaningful relationships over a long-term period. Contractors are able to communicate and collaborate directly with the workers, and the workers tend to improve as a result of becoming more accustomed to the organization they work for, and the set responsibilities and obligations that they are given.

One of the disadvantages of the freelance matchmaking platform is that it requires a lot of overhead when it comes to managing and training of workers. Add the fact that the platforms only serve as matchmakers, and are not accountable for the workers’ performance. This means that the freelance matchmaking platform is best suited to small and medium size businesses, both of which have the ability to train a single freelance worker. It becomes a little bit more challenging for large scale enterprises, as they tend to require a significantly larger freelance workforce, and might not be able to train and manage them remotely.

Crowdsource Models are different from freelance matchmaking services in the sense that they tend to define the work first, instead of trying to find a capable worker. It is then up to the workers to claim or volunteer for the tasks. The jobs also tend to gravitate more towards microtasks instead of whole job responsibilities. Crowdsource Platforms are used by contractors who need tasks done on an as demand basis, so that they can pay only for what they need on any given time. The kinds of work available in Crowdsourcing platforms are usually those that can be split up into numerous microtasks, such as translation, categorization, and content creation, among many others.

The main disadvantage of crowdsourcing platforms comes from its assembly-line approach, which is also its advantage as it allows work to be finished quickly and inexpensively. However, it is that same convenience where problems can occur.

For instance, the assembly line approach prevents workers from building relationships with coworkers and bosses, resulting in each task needing to be defined everytime it needs to be done. There is also a dearth of clearly-defined goals in most of the tasks, which is a very important issue as many workers start to get cynical and perform poorly if they don’t see the big picture, or don’t get an idea of the final output that they are working towards.

Looking Towards the Future

Currently, various technological and organizational barriers to crowd labor approaches are still in the process of being identified and resolved, but experts can already predict far reaching benefits to both businesses and workers. Crowd sourcing continues to open up new ways and means for innovation, and the practice itself already has an impressive record of success.

Amazon’s Mechanical Turk is easily the most successful and well known paid crowd labor platform, but plenty of other services exist online. And as is the nature of success in the industry, you can guarantee that many more will spring up and try to claim their share of the market. At the moment, the competitive areas in the crowd labor market point to a future in which many commoditized applications are built using crowd labor. Zappos has already set the precedent last 2011, when it used crowd labor to improve the quality of their product reviews, reportedly leading to an increase in revenue estimated in the millions of dollars.

Another bright outlook for Crowd Labor Platforms is the possibility of traditional business process outsourcing gravitating towards the crowd labor market. Joe McKendrick from smartplanet lists a number of potential implementations:

Social Media Management – social media has become an important part of businesses these days, as it has proven itself to be a very powerful, yet cost-effective means of marketing, promotion, and even communication clients. However, its prevalence is starting to introduce a lot of complexities to the system, resulting in a need for more management and skilled workers. With Crowd Labor, the responsibilities of a social media manager, no matter how large, can be split up and divvied among various crowd workers. Instead of an entire team of highly paid staff manning a social media department, the company can instead hire a single social media manager, who can then work with the HR or be given the authority to find crowd workers who will do the grunt work.

Retail Analytics – retail analytics usually requires a lot of human intervention, not to mention tremendous amounts of time in order to pore through massive amounts of data. But with crowd sourcing, various workers can take portions of the task and make computations and data collation on their own, where their results can then be tallied and interpreted by a single key person within the company. For instance, hundreds of hours of retail store surveillance footage can be split up amongst various crowd workers, where they can watch their load and measure the percentage of customers that leave the store within a specific time frame, categorize the sections of the store that they frequent the most, etc. All of these retail analytics are very, very powerful in the hands of the company, but can be a massive undertaking without crowd labor.

Product Merchandising – product merchandising, especially in the age of the Internet, has a lot of formulaic aspects that are very powerful when scaled up, but can’t be replicated by a single person very efficiently nor in a fast enough speed. Tasks such as keyword research, copyediting, image editing, resizing, meta data work, marketing, and the like, can be split up among various crowd workers, and a threaded work flow could mean that more products can be handled at the same time compared to a single in house merchandising team. Add the fact that crowd workers will not be burned out by doing the same thing over and over again, because their microtasks don’t take too much time.

Overcoming Limitations

In order for crowd labor platforms to really take off in the future, many of the offerings need to address the more common limitations first, such as the lack of standardization amongst different vendors and crowd labor platforms, as well as lack of trust resulting from some poorly managed providers being used for labor abuse and exploitation. But once these issues are addressed, and the limitations overcome, the opportunities for new forms of work, coupled with a very open market, can only help but speed up the rate of adoption. In time, we may see crowd labor become the norm.

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