Crowdsourcing and innovation are like peas and carrots — they just go better together. And in today’s business world, there is an already an inherent co-dependency where they can never really operate separately with real success. In the below Q&A, Mindjet’s Vice President and US Innovation Services Leader, Michele McConomy, discusses her thoughts on the concept of crowdsourcing, the role crowdsourcing plays when it comes to innovation, and the way large organizations are making this a valuable reality.

What is the genesis of the term and the concept of crowdsourcing? How and when did it begin to emerge in the way that we currently think of it?

Crowdsourcing is the ability to gather the expression of ideas, thoughts, and opinions from crowds of people, and gain an understanding of overall crowd perspective.

The concept of crowdsourcing has been around for ages, but the actual term wasn’t really identified or applied until this century. The ability to gain crowd perspective — and essentially determine the perspective of that crowd as a set of opinions — is something that can be dated to early elections and politics. But the promise of crowdsourcing with the power of technology provides a powerful value proposition: the ability to accelerate the aggregation and prioritization of the crowd’s voice.

In relationship to ideation and innovation, using the power of Internet and social technology provides a powerful outlet for scaling individual ideas to crowd-supported concepts. It’s the ability for all participants to actively contribute and engage, thus identifying the best of the best ideas quickly. Social technology has come to be a powerful outlet in day-to-day life, and has influenced the way we conduct business due to the value it can provide when done correctly. As a result, using the power of social technologies to crowdsource ideas inside andoutside of a company has become more and more popular and effective.

What is the appeal of crowdsourcing? What advantages does it offer? What potential disadvantages does it involve?

Crowdsourcing gives everyone the power to contribute and express his or her voice. The expression of different voices at scale, combined with the power of multiple contributors, allows organizations to quickly accelerate and identify the best ideas or positions as viewed by the crowd engaged in the activity. While some view the expression of the crowd as an advantage, this only applies if you’re willing to acknowledge what the crowd actually has to say. Some view this transparency as a disadvantage.

Crowdsourcing reinforces behaviors like acceptance, expression, and permission. It is critical to manage the expectations of crowdsourcing in order to ensure that what is expressed doesn’t set a negative tone, or unfairly focus the effort in a specific way.

There has been quite an upsurge in the use of idea management tools that allow companies to leverage their communities to drive innovation recently. This seems like an evolution of, or at least an offshoot of, crowdsourcing. How and why do you think this has come about?

Mindjet has grown and expanded over the years, and most notably recently, with the surge in popularity and need for crowdsourcing capabilities. This has come about for a couple of reasons.

First, companies today realize what their most powerful asset is: their people. Most companies are focused on improving culture and providing a voice to employees. The notion of crowdsourcing is in direct alignment with supporting those efforts. Even more important is the fact that employees have ideas they want to share, and great ones at that. They’re on the front lines with customers, living and breathing the day-to-day processes, and developing the products or services that power the company. They have suggestions ranging from incremental improvements to groundbreaking, disruptive innovations. Companies are recognizing that without finding an effective way to leverage the power of the collective employee voice, you will constantly be chasing innovation rather than enabling innovation by engaging and collaborating.

Secondly, companies are focused on accelerating innovation. The ability to respond quickly to the market, increase sales and revenue, and identify cost savings or process inefficiencies, can make or break a company. Giving the power of solving known or even unknown problems to crowds can accelerate the discovery of solutions — not only in identifying the opportunities themselves, but even establishing the networks of passionate people to drive the development of that opportunity.

Lastly, companies need to break down the barriers to globalization. Global companies can sometimes operate in very siloed, hierarchical ways that tend to keep things closed off to the people around them. When crowdsourcing at scale, and engaging crowds that span the globe, silos and barriers that form due to the complexities of the organization will inherently break down.

The advantages companies might reap from mining the crowd for new business ideas seem pretty evident, but what’s in it for the individual “bees” in those “hives?” What motivates them to contribute ideas? What kinds of rewards are likely to trigger more and/or better participation?

Individuals who participate in crowdsourcing initiatives often do it for the reasons that go beyond any tangible reward. First, it’s about expression. Giving someone the power to have a voice and giving them permission to do so can often be the first benefit. In the craziness of day-to-day tasks, the power of self-expression that goes beyond a person’s expected job can provide a powerful outlet. Intrinsic reward is a very motivating catalyst, and one that requires commitment to providing opportunities for networking, professional development, and career progression.

Other drivers for individual contributors include peer and leadership recognition. Gaining support and perspective from colleagues can be all the motivation one needs to feel acceptance and support from the world around them. Exposing themselves to new networks of people can help expand their careers inside the company. Leadership recognition is critical to show that there is appreciation for participation; it also reinforces the crowdsourcing effort as a value-adding activity. It shows commitment to expression of ideas, and it demonstrates how those ideas might become a reality inside of an organization.

Where do you see this going? Is it something that’s going to be adopted on a broader basis by more and more businesses? Why or why not?

Many times, it’s a group of passionate individuals inside an organization that see the promise and power of crowdsourcing, and who will target a specific opportunity to solve. The proven success of one leads to the demand and curiosity of others, who will seek to figure out how crowdsourcing could be applied more broadly and help employees continue solving specific challenges and opportunities at scale. Focusing those challenges and opportunities on critical business goals will take the efforts to an entirely new level, as it is now focused on providing tangible value to contribute to organization growth, development, and value.

Any inherent limitations or disadvantages to doing this?

To operate crowdsourcing initiatives at scale, it is vitally important to have the right resources and commitments in place to support it. Otherwise, you risk having expectations set, but never met. It’s necessary to be able to handle the power of the ideas that come from crowdsourcing, and be able to act in developing and implementing those ideas to drive value. This could be the most powerful advantage if it is planned and managed — to not only identify great ideas, but to take those great ideas through to reality. Operating an innovation program at scale involves tailoring that program specifically to the way a company works and operates, but it also means being prepared to deal with different outcomes. That’s the most important ingredient to making any crowdsourcing effort viewed as valuable to both the individual and the company.

Any other thoughts or comments you’d like to add?

Creating social, engaged organizations that are focused around identifying solutions to specific problems is how crowdsourcing has so far proven its value. Solving real, tangible problems through crowd solution development is how competitive companies are making innovation a reality — and more importantly, how they’ll continue to do so in the future.