Sunday, May 4, 2014

Four Reasons Why You Should Crowdsource

When I first thought about starting my own business almost two years ago, I asked fifty friends to help me in setting up a vision for the future. Forty-three of them agreed to help and after almost four months of discussions, email exchanges, conference calls, and surveys, we agreed on an exciting vision of a world where people can collaborate with each other, regardless of physical distance between them, and use our collective intelligence to solve complex problems. I guess I crowdsourced my crowdsourcing startup.

Bir Ventures is a virtual technology incubator where most of the work is crowdsourced. We take full advantage of current crowdsourcing platforms and so far we had been successful in avoiding major setbacks. Use of crowdsourcing helped us in developing three exciting products and brought them to the market within twelve months.

The explosive growth of the Internet and the ability to access it through smartphones and tablets has made conditions conducive to creating crowdsourced products by tapping into the skills of a multitude of users. If you need a piece of code written, just ask the people on different social media platforms for help and you could have programming experts contributing their code-writing skills to your project. You could be sitting in your home office in Colorado, and coordinate or utilize groups from the far corners of the globe to work on your business tasks.

So why should you crowdsource? And what are the implications of using it in your business? In this post, I will cover four reasons that may contribute to your decision of crowdsourcing some of your work. My next blog will offer specific examples from our experience at Bir Ventures.

1. Access To A Bigger Talent Pool
Crowdsourcing gives you access to a large talent pool with much wider and deeper skills in specific areas of business. The traditional way of recruitment does not allow the freedom or capacity to find this type of skill set to handle projects. You can call only a limited number of local candidates with requisite talent for an interview. These people may or may not have the required ability to effectively carry out your business tasks, or the ability to work with each other and to take a project through to completion.
Crowdsourcing, on the other hand, gives you access to a wide talent of professionals to choose from. You don't have to formally recruit them as employees of your company. You can choose to work with them for the duration of the project, as contract workers or on the basis of time-based remuneration.

2. Expert Talent
Today's business environment calls for tasks of increasing complexity requiring specialized skills. Crowdsourcing is one way to allot complex tasks to true specialists who can accomplish them in a timely and effective manner. It is one way to avoid project delays, because people judged it as incompetent are not allotted tasks which they will find themselves unable to do. Instead, they can concentrate on tasks which they are suitable for and can work on more effectively.

3. Outsource Repetitive Tasks
Projects that involve a large volume of work, or those that have a huge amount of repetitive tasks, are most suitable for crowdsourcing. You can break down the tasks and allot segments to a large number of workers from all around the globe and get the work done within minutes or hours. For instance, if you need 50 articles on a single topic, you can get 50 articles in five hours by crowdsourcing the writing work.

If you allot the entire project to one person, it might take a week to finish it. The person engaged on the writing work might find the whole subject boring and exhausting to get done. As a consequence, the quality of work will also suffer. Crowdsourcing can solve this problem by distributing the work among large number of writers.

4. Lower Cost
For repetitive and large-volume projects, it is possible to get quality work done at a low cost. If you outsource the project to workers from Philippines or India, where wages are much lower than in developed nations, it is possible to get high quality work for a fraction of the cost. Compared to that, hiring full-time workers and paying them well in addition to providing other benefits will inflate your project cost and overheads.

Crowdsourcing may not work all the time and for all projects. It is rather risky to allocate complex technical tasks to workers in remote locations who may not be able to grasp all the details. I will try to cover challenges in another post.

Please give your feedback and share your experiences because it will help me improve and it will motivate me to write more on this topic.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Social Networks - Part 4, where would we go next?

Continued from Blog 3...

Let’s step back from buying and selling (Blog 3) to more generalized collaboration; a topic that I started in my 2nd blog.

Collaboration is a recursive process where two or more people or organizations work together to realize their shared goals. This work requires active communication both in terms of physical coordination and intellectual exchanges.

Our ancestors communicated synchronously, in which all parties interact with each other in real-time, using gestures, signals, voices and finally verbally in the form of languages. Regardless of verbal or non-verbal, all of their communications took place in real-time as all parties were able to observe and process their information instantly.

At some point in our evolution, we started using marks and scratches to inscribe and later paint pictures. This gave birth to a method in which a person communicates to other asynchronously. All the parties were not needed to be in same physical space to receive the communications. However, this was a one-way information exchange at any given time like emails.

During the past 5500 years or so, our collaboration has been improving, marked by many new communication tools, with each one starting a new phase of growth. Here are some examples of these tools, though this is not an exhaustive list:
1.  Written language – 6700HE or 3300BCE
2.  Paper – 1015HE or 105CE
3.  Printing Press – 11400HE or 1440CE
4.  Telephone – 11876HE or 1876CE
5.  Digital Computer (Z3) - 11941HE or 1941 CE
* HE stands for Human Era which starts from 10,000BCE. We are now in 12012HE.

If we look at the trend associated with the introduction of each new communication tool, we will see that each new tool increased the volume of asynchronous communications. However, the first major breakthrough in improving synchronous communication was the invention of the telephone. Internet provided more ways of synchronous communication like video chat. However, we are limited in how many simultaneous synchronous channels can be open at any given time due to the design of our physical senses. This is the reason that if we have more than a certain number of people in one room, in a chat room, on a phone conference or in a video conference, we cannot coordinate effectively.

As pressure is mounting on synchronous communications, because the volume of asynchronous communications has increased astronomically, we are adopting near-synchronous communications in the form of emails, Twitter and Text chat. These methods are not synchronous but do have a level of interaction. 

Some questions that I had been asking myself is where would we go next? Here are some possibilities:
  1. Our brains continue to evolve and we become more efficient in using near-synchronous methods like Skype, Twitter, Facebook, etc.; this is something that I talked about in my first blog on the generational changes in the number of active interactions we could have at any given time. Technologies like Cisco Tele-presence or Anybot will continue to push the limit on virtual presence. How far can we go with this and how would our social behaviours change in the future?
  2. "We will bypass our normal five senses for synchronous communication and develop a link between digital world and our brains." Would we ever dare to do this? Would our brains be able to process larger volumes this way? Would it improve our understanding of each other’s emotions and feelings?
  3. A combination of 1 and 2.
  4. Something totally different.

In the coming weeks, I will think about these possibilities and will need your thoughts and ideas.

I would like to specially thank following friends who have helped me in thinking more clearly by asking the right questions and improving the way I communicate my thoughts:
Emily Hunter
Evan Blumer
Heather Griffin
Nabila Siddiqui
Vikas Gupta
Zulfiqar Ali

http://www.linkedin.com/in/hassansyed
https://twitter.com/#!/hassansyed66
http://hassansyed.brandyourself.com

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Social Networks - Part 3, Buying and Selling of goods


In my first blog, I talked about some differences between traditional social interactions and the new-age social networking. I identified three key areas that are affected by this change:
● Non-verbal communications (difference due to the less face-to-face time).
● Number of active interactions (multiple active conversations at a point of time and in larger volumes).
● Establishing a connection with another person (increased numbers and shortened initial introduction time).

The second blog was about different phases of collaborative engagement. I proposed five of them:
● Invitation - to a new opportunity or our interest in it.
● Hesitant Engagement - in which we are a little bit interested, but would like to know more.
● Enthusiastic Engagement - in which we are fully engaged in a collaborative effort.
● Disengagement – which comes after realizing the benefits or lack of confidence in the outcome.
● Closure - which marks an end to our involvement.

Now, let’s look at the types of collaboration and how they are changing with time. In this blog, I will cover the simplest form of human collaboration - buying and selling of goods.

Starting from the mid 90’s, the buying and selling of goods has seen exponential growth. Now, nearly everything is sold over the Internet. There has been a volumetric increase in the number of opportunities that we can get engaged in – all highly visible opportunities. Amazon, Ebay and Alibaba are some good examples of this trend. 

Almost every e-commerce and business opportunity site relies on volume to compete with the physical world establishments. This is, of course, unless they are an extension of the physical world establishments. Furthermore, their offers are getting smarter and more targeted. Google and Facebook advertisements are targeted towards our interests and will get even better over time because they will continue improving their tools. 

With more choices, our needs are more closely met, but high volume means that we must learn to quickly assess the suitability of a product and quickly make our decision about buying/selling it. This gave birth to our first ‘crowdsourcing’ venture in which many of us participated without even knowing the word ‘crowdsourcing’. Ebay Seller and Buyer ratings or Amazon product ratings and reviews are actually crowd-sourced decision making tools that we use regularly.

I think socially we are becoming more accustomed to the higher volumes, but people from Generation X or earlier complain about the over-marketing and excessive choices available on the Internet as compared to the good ol’ pre-Internet days. 

So, how have our collaboration efforts changed over time?
● It is easy and more convenient to find interesting things and it is easier for interesting things to find us.
● We have more choices when we want to buy something and there is more reach to buyers.
● We collectively learn about the products and product teams can learn more about consumer behaviour.
● We can simultaneously engage with multiple sellers and sellers can group buyers through sites such as groupon.com.
● Reviews from fellow buyers/sellers help us make selections and shape our decisions.

I have used examples from a consumer perspective but similar ideas apply to Business-to-Business or B2B dealings.

Just on a side note, I was thinking how much time are we saving by shopping online? J.P Morgan is projecting $963B in online shopping for 2013. If I took $1,000 as an average spent per shopping trip, the world will be saving 963 million trips to shopping malls in 2013. Assuming a 10 mile one-way trip for shopping and an average gas consumption of 30MPG, the world will save 642 million gallons in gas consumption, $2.5B in gas cost and save 5,707,380 metric tons in carbon emissions. This is very interesting - if we also add driving time to this mix, with the assumption of 15 minutes each way, 481 million hours will be saved in one year.

Future possibilities
New Social Media Marketing would allow closer collaboration between the product designers, developers and consumers. We are seeing some of the early attempts like ‘Citroen’ doing the design of their car on Facebook. Quirky.com is another example of crowdsourcing product design ideas.

Social beliefs would play a larger role in product selection with potential new breeds of tools, allowing buyers to consider the production/selling company’s ethics/practices/history in their purchasing decision.

Thinking beyond ten years, 3D printers may end up printing personalized products at our home. Today I saw on Engadget, a chocolate printer or someone even trying to print the whole house!

Can you think of more possibilities in which people will buy or sell in the future?

Read the next blog...

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Saturday, March 24, 2012

Social Networks - Part 2, Phases of Collaborative Engagement

Continued from Blog 1...

In my previous blog, I suggested that in my next blog post, I would talk about how collaboration in the new virtual world is different from the more traditional human collaboration. When I started writing about it, I realized that in order to look at how collaboration could be different in the Traditional (Physical World) and New Age (Virtual World) environments, we must first understand the different phases we go through during a collaborative engagement. This is why I changed the title of this post.

People work together to achieve big goals that they could not achieve by working alone. Our social cognition and ability to collaborate separates us from other highly evolved primates like chimpanzees and bonobos. The very foundation of society is formed around the concept that we are not only born collaborators, but enjoy working with one another.

When we work together, we go through different stages of engagement:

1.      Interest or Invitation
This is the phase where the owner/originator of a project invites other people to join that project or where someone’s interest in a project has been generated. This could be the initial brainstorming session by your manager on a new business strategy or a suggestion by your friend to plan a party. It could also be a request for contribution to a cause on a website.
Our decision to collaborate is based on our understanding of the answers to three key questions:
a.       Do we have a common goal?
b.      Do we think this venture will be a success? We must be confident that all team members will do their part and that we will be successful in achieving our goal.
c.       What would we get in return for our contributions? Our perceived value of our share of benefits or outcome must be proportionate or equitable to our efforts. 
In the absence of any one of the above, most of us would not get involved in a collaborative venture unless it is needed for our survival.  

In our physical world, we work in teams where goals are defined, roles are distributed, connections are trusted, and benefits are shared. All this happens within a pre-defined system that we trust; like working for a company. We know that we will advance our careers, we will be compensated for our efforts, and if a team member is not doing their job, they will be disciplined or expelled. The biggest reason for people to leave their job is the absence of that trust.  

When we collaborate outside the trusted systems, we become extra cautious. Our trust level goes down and we demand more information before we get involved. Have you ever been approached by a person that you did not know about something new; an idea, a business, or a cause? 

Our perception of value in a venture gets inflated by our needs, whether based on current parameters or in childhood. For example, if someone is hungry, they are willing to pay more money for food than someone who is not. When people are hungry, they tend to buy more groceries. Try it out yourself and go for food shopping when hungry. Similarly, sharing our passion or belief could be a big motivator because supporting our beliefs is an intangible but high-value reward for us. 

The above mentioned principles are the key for someone to become part of a collaboration effort and there seems to be no difference between the real world collaboration and the virtual world. 

2.      Hesitant Engagement
In some cases, participants may not go through this phase at all if the level of trust in the collaborator or facilitator is high, perception of the reward is very high, or the goal is closer to their core beliefs. In this phase, participants seek to resolve any doubts about the answers to the three basic questions.
3.      Enthusiastic Engagement 
As soon as the participants get satisfactory answers to all three questions they become enthusiastic participants. They will take full ownership of their role.

4.      Disengagement 
At any point in the collaborative effort, when a participant has either achieved his goal or stopped believing in the outcome, he becomes disengaged. Participants may continue switching between the middle three phases, depending on their state of mind.

5.      Closure 
Once the benefits are achieved and the participants believe that they have contributed their fair share, they will leave the engagement. Disengagement without proper closure always reduces trust in the system or in the collaboration partners. A good collaborator should always make sure that the disengaged participants are either re-engaged or reach a proper closure.

We should be able to map which stage we’re at in a collaborative venture, whether that effort is a simple collaboration like buying and selling or something complex and long-term.  

Here is a good video presentation by Dr. Michael Tomasello on the Origins of Human Collaboration. 

I really would like to hear from you if you can or cannot map your collaborative engagements to these stages. Likewise, if you have any comments, questions, or concerns, I would like to hear from you.

Read the next blog...

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Social Networks - Part 1

The social networks such as Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter have lot more meaning and usability than merely being a medium to post funny cat pictures or changing the status line every few minutes. We all seem to acknowledge the fact that these networks can do a lot more but somehow the utilization of these networks is mostly dominated by businesses upselling to their customers or generating leads.

Although, it so much fun to see all the status updates from 100s of your real friends, family members and some “claimed to be friends”, but for the most part parents and grown-ups see these as a waste of time for kids and younger generation. I have friends who are proud to be “Facebook-free” and they, all the time, preach how beautiful life is without Facebook and LinkedIn. I am sure moderation is the safest bet and excess of anything could cause problems.

Change brings challenges as well as opportunities. Internet-based social networks brings about enormous amount of change in how we interact with each other and thus new opportunities are created that have never before been imagined.  Smart are those who can see this change and ride the wave of opportunity to do good things.

One area where social networks have brought about an enormous change is the way to organize people on a common platform both in terms of volume and speed. Luis von Ahn, professor of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University, talked about the limitations in organizing human efforts beyond 100,000 people. In a TED talk last year, he presented the opportunity of translating the web for free while teaching people new languages. He asked the question; what can we do with hundred million people?

In this series of blogs, I will share my thoughts and observations on how people are taking advantage of new social networks and what are the potential new ways in which we can benefit from this change.

Before we start thinking about collaboration ideas involving 100 million people, we must look at how the virtual world social interactions are different from social interactions in the physical world. The topic of this blog post is the difference between this new way of socializing in the virtual world and our aeons-old social practices taking place in a physical world.

Here are three key areas that I think are the most critical:

1.  Non-verbal communications

Social interactions in human life invoke feelings and emotions that are caused by the instinctive learning over millions of years. Hugging, kissing, shaking hands, smiling, frowning, making sad faces, smirking, blushing, and other expressions, are all physical manifestations of our mental states. Our brains are trained to recognize these emotions through small changes in our behaviours. We can mostly distinguish between a real smile and a fake one. We can feel the warmth of emotions in a hug or recognize the difference between a smile and a smirk.

In the virtual world, we are dependent on the emoticons or expression of emotions in words. This is a handicap because everyone’s smile appears to be the same and it is hard to tell the difference. I think that the Generation Z has already adapted to react to words and pictures upon a screen just as they would in real life but we- the Generation X and older, cannot comprehend it. I think they have already developed neural connections to feel the smile through an emoticon in a similar manner as they would feel if someone was with them in-person. One of my colleagues pointed out that re-tweeting or re-posting could be a way of mirroring for Generation-Net. It will be interesting to study the evolution of this new form of communication in 10-15 years’ time.

2.  Number of active interactions

In the physical world, we are able to keep track of and be engaged in only one conversation at a time.  More than that is unwieldy or seen as being inattentive.  As a result, when thinking about conversations, most individuals think in very small groups.

The virtual world offers a different landscape and a different set of parameters. In this environment, large number of people can get involved in multiple conversations at the same time. Just because the response from other party is not expected to be instantaneous, people can engage in multiple conversations easily and simultaneously.

If you belong to an older generation (X or older), you can feel this difference in form of frustration when chatting online, with a member of Generation-Net (both Y and Z), and receiving slower responses. You expect them to send a quicker response because you think that this is the only conversation they are having, while they are chatting with three other people at the same time. I am using this Generation-Net term for the people who grew-up with the Internet and it is synonymous to Net Generation.

3.  Establishing a connection

It is very common to meet a new person from some place and immediately ask them if they knew your other friend from the same place. We look for the common factors and links between us and a new person right away. These introductions establish a baseline knowledge about each other which forms the basis of how far your conversation or relationship is going to last.

In the virtual world, most of these connections are already established and we are well informed on what common grounds we have with anyone in our social network.

When working with sites like LinkedIn, you can see the generational difference very easily. Generation X normally initiates a connection request when they have physically met the other party, while Generation-Net (Y and Z) is actively looking for links and establishing them without any need for in-person meeting or introduction.

Due to the differences in these three key areas, there are lots of behavioural differences between the generations that grew-up with the Net and older generations. These behavioural differences are acknowledged widely. Here are two interesting reads for you:



Please share your thoughts on how you think virtual social networks are different from the physical world.

In my next blog, I will talk about how collaboration in this new environment is different from traditional collaboration.

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