I think that is one way to look at it and you obviously raise some serious concerns and limitations. Yet the social media/open collaboration genre is taking the mainstream world by storm. Some of that is going to carry over into how not only engineers but any kind of business professional does their job. That's not to say all product development should and will be done via an open forum by committee--you're right, that has a proven track record of failure. But engineering needs to be open to new ways of collaboration and pick and choose adoption of what may make sense. Otherwise, they run the risk of becoming a dinosaur.
Good point, Rob. Didn't I hear recently that the new idea of "texting gloves" was suggested by a young website visitor who owned an iPhone? This would support your point on both counts: open work circle; younger generation.
I agree with other posters that this is an excellent way to accumulate ideas and be able to sort through for the most acceptable prior to proceeding with the true engineering types. Many large corporations have taken the route of "sponsoring" pseudo-competitions where the best ideas get funded and followed with an ongoing package. GE's program has proven very successful at gathering ideas at little cost and no guarantees that the participants entry will be kept private. It has always been the premise that one cannot patent an idea, but you have to be capable of coming up with good ideas for that to become the problem.
This may, again, be one of those generational issues. Some of the values such as closed work circles and privacy concerns seem to be weakening with those now coming into the workforce. When Mark Zukerberg said privacy doesn't matter any longer, it may be true for his generation. Crowdsourcing may seem perfectly right for those coming out of college now.
I've never seen design by committee work. So now you take the people who know how things work out of the equation and let your product be designed by janitors and those who clean the dead animals off the road?
It will take a bit of intelligence to glean the signal from the noise here and I know by experience that most management, sales, marketing, is not up to the task.
All I can assume is that the people who are pushing this are either looking for a way to reduce their responsibility or looking for a way to make a living.
SparkyWatt: All very good points and very real stumbling blocks for this approach. Echos what I heard in all the interviews when writing the story and a lot of the focus of complaints in the engineering blogosphere. As with any new paradigm, some of these kinks get worked out as the approach is put into action. But you're right on that any company exploring use of crowdsourcing as a legitmate source of development brainpower has to think through these very real hesitations.
I see three big issues with this that won't go away:
- The "crowd" doesn't get paid. Which will make it unreliable. Treating this sort of thing as an extension of a focus group (or similar) could work well, but in the end paid employees with the proper training will have to finish the job.
- Anybody can be part of the crowd, including flakes. Someone reliable will have to sort the ideas. This is the opposite problem from the first. The first is that the right people may not be there when you need them. This one is that the wrong people might be there, and you have to weed them out.
- The IP and confidentiality issues (I am amazed that a military project was done this way, they basically took the design of a piece of military hardware and broadcast it to the world).
I think NIH still remains a stumbling block to effective crowdsourcing as does compensation methods and the general perception that companies that dabble in this are trying to get their next big idea for free. But I think concepts of crowdsourcing (perhaps not as a pure development model) lend themselves very well to the new generation of socially-engaged engineers and new collaboration technologies. Time will tell.
Great article, Beth. Engineers have always been reticent to employ ideas from outsiders, even from other engineers. The NIH (Not Invented Here) concept has long been with us, even in some cases when the outsiders were also engineers. It's interesting to note that something like crowdsourcing could actually have an effect on NIH.
I would agree, Rob, that this model, however compelling, does present some thorny circumstances when it comes to ownership of IP. Sites like Local Motors say they are addressing all of those questions upfront and that active members know full well what the boundaries and rules are pertaining to their participation. Nevertheless, I do think until crowdsourcing becomes a more readily established means of development, companies and individuals will have to tread lightly.
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