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By Sal Partovi

A fascinating article made the rounds last month, describing a crowdsourcing success story involving teams of international gamers, AIDS, and a specific protein’s structure.

For about a decade, scientists from all over the globe have been stumped to figure out how a protein-cutting enzyme from an AIDS-like virus found in rhesus monkeys folds.  When an attempt to use “Rosetta”, a protein-folding application, failed to solve the problem, researchers turned to a last resort – a unique gaming platform called Fold.it.  To everyone’s surprise, a team of 15 gamers calling themselves the “Contenders” solved a riddle in 10 days that had stumped scientists for years – “an accomplishment that could point the way to crowdsourced cures for AIDS and other diseases” according to this MSNBC article.

So what does a protein structure have to do with cloud computing?

While the concept of crowdsourcing is still in its relative infancy (the term itself wasn’t coined until 2006), it seems like every day there’s a new company or service using crowdsourcing to create assets, solve problems, recommend things or even outsource microtasks.

The real question is no longer whether crowdsourcing is here to stay or whether it can provide value – the questions lay more around the model itself.  What problems can crowdsourcing be applied to next? How should a provider structure the community to promote collaboration and ensure the best ideas rise to the top? How do people effectively use the model and the results?

These were all questions Appirio asked when we created CloudSpokes – a crowdsourcing community for cloud development – earlier this year.  As a cloud service broker, Appirio is focused on helping enterprises successfully adopt, connect and extend public cloud platforms.  Over the last five years, we’ve built an internal team of 400 cloud experts to do this, but early on saw the need to foster and tap into a broader community of developers to create solutions for ourselves, our customers and the industry overall.  The community has since grown to 25,000+ members and we’re constantly surprised at the different ways it’s being used.

CloudSpokes was not created to just address our needs. Like the protein enzyme challenge mentioned above, crowdsourcing a solution is about effectively engaging and fostering a broader community of people to solve tough, interesting or even fun challenges – whether those challenges are presented by us or others in the industry.

How can a CIO use crowdsourcing to increase innovation?

Understanding the myriad of crowdsourcing services available is just the tip of the iceberg. Crowdsourcing simplifies certain parts of a process – similar to how cloud computing pushes certain responsibilities to a specialized provider – but with that simplicity there’s a cost.  Not everything fits the model.  In the cloud development space specifically, there’s a certain type of project that fits and a certain way to define that project in a digestible way.  Here are a few recommendations on how to use this new model effectively:

  • Look for the Long-tail
    • Non-core elements of a project or bite-sized additions that would have a significant impact are great opportunities for crowdsourcing.  For one customer that we’re working with on a large sales process transformation, we used CloudSpokes to crowdsource a Sales Leadership Dashboard.  During the project, the customer had an idea that a leaderboard would encourage adoption by appealing to the natural competitiveness of the sales team.  This dashboard wasn’t in the specifications for the original project but is likely to have a significant impact on adoption.

  • Crowdsource Creativity
    • Certain problems, by their very nature, can be solved in a number of ways, but it’s the creativity of that solution that will separate success from failure.  Unlike traditional waterfall build and iterate projects (some of which never come to fruition), crowdsourcing seeks multiple solutions to a given problem instead of just one interpretation.  For example, creating engaging mobile and social apps requires creative thinking and new ideas in order to achieve the best user experience.  This is why Appirio turned to CloudSpokes to crowdsource the 2011 Dreamforce Mobile Party App which was used by 10K+ attendees at Dreamforce.

  • When the “Whole > Sum + of + Parts”
    • We’ve seen our share of technology projects which would be a fantastic fit for crowdsourcing, but not in their traditional framing.  Certain projects can be broken down into a handful of key pieces that when slotted together complete a much larger puzzle.  With the right guidance, we’ve helped a few clients deconstruct a problem and crowdsource the solutions.  A prime example of this was a client’s need for a Mobile Account Check-In App – an app that would allow a sales rep to “check-in” via an iPad at an account’s physical location, and have that record tracked in their CRM system.  The final solution was crowdsourced as (1) a Geolocation Toolkit challenge for the map functionality, and (2) an Account Check-In UI challenge which used that geolocation toolkit to construct the app front-end.

These recommendations only scratch the surface for what’s possible, but hopefully provide some food for thought on what problems a community of experts could help you solve in your organization.  In the Foldit example, researchers tried for 10 years to achieve what was done in 10 days with a new perspective and a new model – can you afford that level of ROI (Risk of Ignoring)?

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