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Crash Course in Crowdstorming: An Interview With Shaun Abrahamson

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From picking pop stars, to funding scientific research, crowdsourcing, the process of using the power of the crowd to get ideas, fund projects, review products and services, or find talent, is having a profound impact on the way we do things.

I've been thinking about how to use crowdsourcing in our research practice at BeyondCurious. So I attended Shaun Abrahmson's Crowdstorming workshop, part of Silicon Beach Fest held at Cross Campus in Santa Monica. Abrahamson, author of the book Crowdstorm: The Future of Innovation, Ideas, and Problem Solving, was kind enough to do an interview with me. Here are his thoughts on why we should be paying attention to crowdstorming, its benefits, its limitations, and the future of the crowdstorming movement.

What is crowdstorming, and why should we care?

Most of us have used brainstorming, usually when faced with a difficult problem. Crowdstorming takes brainstorming to a different scale - it lets us work with large groups of outside experts and customers.

The reason it matters is that organizations that are putting it to work are already benefiting. Google and Apple benefit from app developer networks, but that's just the start. P&G sources more than 50 percent of new product IP from outside the company. Amazon is taking on traditional TV and movie studios. And that's just the large firms. Some of the biggest changes are still only a few years in but they are changing industries from consumer products to automotive.

What are some of the best and worst examples of crowdstorming?

The Best

+ GE ecomagination challenge (because of the incentive structure and scale)
+ Quirky (because of the process innovation)
+ American Idol (because it has multiple benefits - finds and promotes talent, but also changes relationship with viewers)


+ - provided a tool with no guidance for participants or clients. The hardest part of crowdstorming is not tech.
+ Open naming contests (Mountain Dew, NASA ISS module, etc). They aren't so popular anymore, given various failures. Its not that I don't like the idea of asking crowds to name things, but more that the motivation often seemed focused on generating conversation and engagement vs solving a problem.

What are some of the different flavors of crowdstorming?

I think about different types in terms of patterns, or more specifically what is the crowd being asked to do? Very often that means a simple search for ideas (might be plans, concepts, prototypes, etc). In this flavor the process is to ask for ideas from either the public or a specific community.

In more complex flavors (we call them collaborative patterns), additional tasks are added. One or more groups might be asked to offer feedback on submitted ideas; they might be asked to rate or vote on ideas. Broadly, the crowd is not focusing on creating ideas, but refining and selection ideas.

In the most complex flavors (called integrated patterns), crowds are the only means for sourcing ideas and feedback. This is usually the case for startups.

Which crowdstorming application/area do you see as having the greatest growth potential, and/or which are you the most excited about?

I am really excited about what can happen when large firms with distribution, sales, and marketing can partner with small teams or even individuals with great products or services.

App stores are perhaps the best manifestation of this. But I like what GE ecomagination has done. And I am curious to see what happens with Nike + accelerator. In a different way, the US government grand challenges movement is doing something similar. They are lending the support of the government to early stages in the way that they have done with research money in the past, but now challenging government agencies to take on very big challenges by getting help from outside the government.

If I wanted to set up a crowdstorming project for my business or client, what are the top five things I'd need to think about?

1. A great question - Solve a real problem, make it easy to communicate and share, and make it clear to potential participants

2. Rewards - How will you reward the best - sometimes tricky mix of good, attention, money, experience and stuff (games)

3. Recruiting - Your outcomes are only as good as your ability to reach and motivate loads of people who might be able to solve your problem

4. Choosing the best - You need to be clear on this so you can deliver fairly on your promises

5. Delivery - If you want to be able to work with crowds again, you need to be able to not just deliver rewards, but put the ideas/plans/prototypes into action (very often this is where crowdstorming fails)

How did you get started in crowdstorming?

I've been curious about online collaboration for a while. In 2008, I had the opportunity to research how large groups of people were working together to do everything from create content to solve large open challenges.

Around the same time I was advising a friend from triple8 and we were working on some marketing and product ideas. We talked about a design challenge for one of his skateboard helmets and he agreed to try. I was surprised by what worked, but also by some of the challenges (like people trying to mess with the voting system).

Can you give an example of a recent crowdstorming project you worked on?

My most recent public project was It has gone on to become a much larger initiative, but you can see the original ideas here.

It's interesting for many reasons - most important Graham's vision for ultra-low footprint living but also because of the process and potential impact. The ideas are being monetized directly, but also shared in the hope that they will inspire other designers and developers (and this appears to be happening, too).

How do you see the future of crowdstorming evolving?

On the one end, I expect to see continued experimentation at the edge of the organization around where crowds can be invited in. Amazon studios and Quirky have nice maps of their processes that reveal what is possible. I just imagine this happening in other R&D and marketing processes.

I also think that for some of the biggest problems, we'll continue to see a shift away from a search for ideas, and instead see a focus on a search for talent and teams, like ecomagination and Nike+ accelerator.

Finally, as we see more interaction online and associated monitoring tools, we're seeing more reputation systems that offer detailed records and scoring like our credit scores but for our work. So I expect that one by-product of crowdstorming will be its role in ranking and rating talent in different domains based on their ideas and feedback about ideas.

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