Anyone who’s ever been part of an organization tasked with solving difficult challenges is likely familiar with the concept of brainstorming. Working from the premise that the sum is often greater than the individual parts when it comes to tapping collective wisdom, experience, and cognitive power, brainstorming can result in solutions that individual members would have been unlikely to come up with on their own. Crowdsolving works on the same premise, only better. Because it is able to tap into a much larger and more diverse universe of resources, crowdsolving might be described as brainstorming on steroids (figuratively speaking, of course).

If you’re looking for examples of crowdsolving results, Mattel recently used it to help determine which career the next Barbie should have; LEGO offers its CUUSOO microsite, which allows consumers to virtually tweak its new product designs; and Ben & Jerry’s and Dunkin’ Donuts have used crowdsolving to create new flavors.

And now it’s making inroads in the small and medium-sized business arena, although companies are just beginning to scratch the surface of all that crowdsolving has to offer, says Doron Reuveni,  CEO and cofounder of uTest, a provider of software development testing services. Crowdsolving has the power to yield innovations and new designs and to solve technical problems that smaller companies might not be able to solve on their own.

In fact, since SMBs tend to be closer to their stakeholders than larger companies are, they may have greater opportunities for listening to their customers, vendors, and employees and using the suggestions of this informal “think tank” to solve problems, suggests Rasheen Carbin, director of business development at MBA Project Search, which connects MBAs with businesses that need their expertise on a short-term, ad hoc basis. “Crowdsolving allows SMBs to gain a more thorough understanding of their impact on the people they interact with every day,” he says. “It builds relationships and trust, and it creates an early warning system for the avoidance or mitigation of problems with vendors, customers, and employees.”

SMBs can also use crowdsolving to gain support in areas where they lack capabilities. “Crowds can empower them to compete against larger players in the market,” says Mayank Mittal, director of business development and corporate strategy at PASS Group AG, a global provider of on-demand managed testing services. “By bringing customers, vendors, and employees together, SMBs can create a collaborative atmosphere that enables them to tackle difficult problems, increase reusability, and handle new opportunities.” He adds that direct involvement of customers in product design, development, and testing can help businesses achieve new levels of innovation.

Madison Electric Products provides the electrical supply and manufacturing industries with more than 2,000 products developed by electricians for electricians. In a practical application of crowdsolving, it created the Sparks Product Innovation Center, a crowdsourced, collaborative approach to new product development. “We felt strongly that the best resources for new product development are those who use the products every day during the installation of all types of electrical projects,” says Brad Wiandt, president of Madison Electric Products. “Our partners at that level have the best perspective and insight into what works and what doesn’t, as well as what is currently needed because it doesn’t already exist.”

Like any new technology-based paradigm, crowdsolving comes with some challenges and obstacles. A big one is getting the level of participation needed to generate truly actionable outcomes. When crowdsolving projects fail, it’s often due to a lack of sufficient outreach to get the right people involved and/or insufficient communication once you’ve got participants onboard, says Michael Timmons, director of marketing and client services at Skild, which provides a software platform that helps organizations create online competitions and drive online innovation. “Some people may be resistant to sharing their ideas if they don’t feel they are being fairly compensated,” he says. “Additionally, organizations need to be clear about who owns, and can profit from, the idea after it is shared. In some cases, ideas may also need to be vetted to determine if they already exist and have patents.”

Timmons says SMBs interested in launching a crowdsolving initiative should start with a solid game plan and a strategy to implement top-down interaction. Clearly identify the problem to be solved or the goal to be achieved and the best way to present it that is most likely to spur interaction. “The more the crowd feels connected to the problem (or goal), the more comfortable they will be adding input,” he says.

Carbin agrees that implementing, using, controlling, and measuring the results of crowdsolving can be difficult, but that it can be made less difficult by establishing clear goals about what you’re trying to achieve at the very start. “It also requires that people feel their honesty is required and will be rewarded,” he says. “Crowdsolving isn’t a fad. Collaboration of this sort will become more common as the workforce becomes more ad hoc, agile, and outsourced.”

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