Does Crowdsourcing Work in a Project Environment?

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Can someone please help me understand the hype surrounding crowdsourcing?

I understand the premise: Tasks are essentially outsourced to a large group of people through a call to action. (For more, see "The In Crowd" in the June 2009 PM Network®.)

This seems like a project manager's worst nightmare. The requirements and quality management alone must be a huge undertaking:

  • How do you ensure a team of people who aren't getting paid remain focused enough to see your project through to completion?
  • How do you ensure no one is trying to game the system?  
  • How do you reward those contributing more than others?
I found one marketing agency that claims to be the first built on crowdsourcing principles. I certainly applaud the innovation and outside-the-box thinking. But when I read the description of how they manage resources for projects, it sounds more like a large freelance bench model rather than a brand-new approach. That's not meant as a stab at the agency -- it appears to do good work. Rather it's meant to illustrate that there remains a great deal of confusion in the marketplace around what this methodology is and how to implement it.
With many highly visible crowdsourcing projects, for example, there seems to be a lot of press about individuals within the "crowd" who ultimately feel cheated or used for their skills, having been inadequately compensated -- or not compensated at all.
It looks like you take a big chance when you sign on to these projects, given that there's usually no contract to fall back on. I imagine this risk goes both ways.

I hope this will serve as a conversation starter. What does your organization think about crowdsourcing?  Have you ever participated -- or managed -- a crowdsourced project? I'm very interested in hearing the challenges and victories out there around this approach.
Posted by Geoff Mattie on: March 01, 2011 04:25 PM | Permalink

Comments (10)

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I think you're exactly right, on many fronts -- adding compensation to the mix opens up a whole new level of complexity. It's hard enough just getting a crowd to row in the same general direction, but the open source movement has actually managed to evolve a pretty extensive set of approaches that they use to coordinate development. You still see projects die on the vine or totally blow deadlines all the time, but there are definitely some work pretty efficiently.

Nevertheless, that's in sort of an economic "vacuum". As soon as you start to have money flowing through it, or even vaguer issues like "recognition" and "creative credit," it all gets a lot more complicated.

Gail Gardner
You raise some very valid concerns that point out the dangers of crowdsourcing. I believe it CAN work for SOME purposes but it can also create PR and other issues if not carefully managed.

I have some unique insights into a highly visible crowdsourcing failure that affects WordPress blogs. I started writing a comment here that ended up being so long that I turned it into a post that I put in the URL field here.

The post will be published Sunday afternoon (because that is the best time on Sunday to reach the most people on Twitter and via RSS) and includes links to other examples of crowdsourcing successes and failures.

I did add your TrackBack URL and included a link to this post so you should be notified when it goes live.

Lori Witzel
Love the conversation starter. I was looking at this topic from a marketing perspective, but added a trackback to this post for the PMI focus.

Here's my $0.02 on crowdsourcing contests:

Stan Yanakiev, PMP
Hi Geoff. To be honest, I haven't tried crowdsourcing in my projects.

My guess though, is that if you opt for it, it would be to address very specific challenges. Using this non-traditional approach, one should also think "out of the box" and probably shift away from traditional project management principles. So, to me it is question what you want to achieve and choose appropriate project management approach which may be quite different from the traditional "best practices".

John Carter
We have studied this topic with Professors from Santa Clara, surveying about a dozen organizations, and published a report "How Social Media Methodologies Are Applied to High-Technology Companies in New Product Development " in December 2010.

We have found several examples of crowdsourcing in product development that worked, and worked well. One example was using User Generated Content (UGC) to photograph consumer storage challenges. We also found that Project Managers use crowdsourcing to trade software scripts on LinkedIn, and using Twitter to conduct quick surveys. We are also finding successes in using the crowd to help with Beta testing, using closed community forums for discussion.

If you look at some point examples, there are some compelling demonstrations of how social technology/social platforms/crowdsourcing can help teams be more successful - from idea to launch.


I've used crowdsourcing for specific parts of projects most often in the gathering of requirements when there are large groups of people to manage and a single call to action with massive response is really what you're after. The link below heads over to the full post:

In general, I wouldn't want to use it for everything the project is trying to achieve as I think having a well oiled team is one of the most important aspects of good project management, but like any good tool if used in it's correct place it can be very effective.


Rodolfo Siles, PMP
Crowdsourcing can be easily applied to issue management, where the wisdom of the crowd can provide new insights and innovative solutions to a problem.

I still cannot see it in other parts of PM where there is a need for speed and quality.

William H Gutches
If "crowdsourcing" is a call to action that is focused in one area, supported by the group or organization's management, accepted as a way to contribute to projects AND get some credit for their contribution, then, MAYBE, it can be used effectively for specific purposes.

The project team that decides to use this to gather 'public feedback' or 'a group's sense of expectations / directions' on a project or some company direction proposal, should be prepared for the worst possible response: No Answers but be very cautious when they get large numbers of responses unless the responders are identified. Anonymous responses may not be trustworthy!

I would like to read about some case studies of this technique to understand the content, intent, and results of this technique.


Gina Lijoi
The challenge of too many cooks in the kitchen is very real to any Project Manager who might consider crowdsourcing during a decision making process.

There are so many intricacies and complexities to even the most basic projects, to suggest any number of people external to the team (and sometimes even on the team) could determine how to move forward at any juncture takes away from the expertise and mastery a Project Manager possesses.

Even if the issue in question is a creative one, getting feedback from many people may confuse matters. There is a difference between making informed decisions, and exercising opinion - I'm not sure how one could crowdsource in a way that would avoid opinion... Very good topic!

James Roper
I think when talking about crowd sourcing you need to also mention what specifically you are crowd sourcing.

At my company, we crowd source development and testing of software libraries very successfully, by releasing our libraries as open source.

In some cases, we've had people contribute improvements and bugfixes that helped us, and in one case, a bug that would have hit us hard in production managed to slip through our QA, but someone else encountered this bug before we went to production, and so we were able to fix it before it hurt us.

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