In a recent article on crowdsourced computing, The Economist traces the phenomenon back to the late 1930s, when Depression-era stimulus money funded teams of number-crunchers to work together like a giant Excel spreadsheet. The concept is experiencing a comeback:
Over the past few years, human computing has been reborn. The new generation of human computers carry out different tasks, but they mirror their predecessors in many other ways. They are being drafted in to perform tasks that computers cannot. They are employed in large numbers and are organised into streamlined workflows. And, as was the case in the age before electronic computers, their output is combined to generate results that could not easily be produced in any other way.
My colleague James Everingham, a founder of two businesses — LiveOps and now Luminate — that organize freelancers into human computers, points out that modern crowdsourcing requires a new, more subtle approach than the math factories of the pre-digital age:
As technologists we must be careful to view our computer as more than a series of simple switches. The components of our computer are people with feelings, aspirations, goals and desires and we must treat them as such. We should strive to provide them with sufficient surrogates for the same things that satisfy those of us that have traditional work environments including a community, feedback, growth opportunity and visibility into meaningful work results. The real power of human computing is more than just controlling a large crowd of workers. High-value work is accomplished when you align work types with interests and enable large groups of fanatics to do work that feeds their passion.
In other words, if you look to crowdsourcing merely as a cheap alternative to full-time employees, you are bound to get what you pay for. If instead you conceive of crowdsourcing as mechanism to pay people for work they’re already doing because they enjoy it, you’ll find yourself with both high-quality end results and a happy CFO.