What do we think?

Charles Leadbeater’s book We-Think (2008) didn’t really get me excited about crowdsourcing, but it did help me analyze it in a structured fashion. It’s a book that takes a look at large-scale, shared creativity, and examines why it is happening, how it works, and the long-term impact it may have. One thing that comes across clearly is that it is a well-researched book, and in the spirit of the open-source movement you can access the primary research via the writer’s web site.

Leadbeater starts out by taking us through what he considers the three essential ingredients of successful We-Think: participation, recognition and collaboration. The most important point he makes is that the mass of individual contributions need to be organized for any sort of productive output. In my opinion it is advances in the technologies that can structure and filter massive inputs that will truly advance crowdsourcing, and see it become a standard tool in many businesses.

In the next chapter ‘The roots of We-Think’ Leadbeater identifies the geek, the academic, the hippie and the peasant as the key groups that have formed the hybrid culture of We-Think. Whilst these might be the origins, I think the mix we have today has become radically more complex, as an entire generation from all backgrounds is taking mass collaboration in their stride.

Leadbeater’s view is that a good core around which a community can form is critical. He sees the crowdmanage process as one where smart individuals have a creative conversation and then invite others to contribute. It is difficult to disagree with his statement that groups ‘with larger sets of diverse tools and skills are at an advantage if they can combine effectively to take on complex tasks.’

At first I thought Leadbeater has it wrong when he says that ‘Blogging is high on participation, low on collaboration,’ but after reflection on the point I would have to agree. The sort of collaboration that leads to significant production does not often emerge from blogs. Leadbeater is explicit about the five conditions he considers necessary for advanced We-Think:

  1. A small core creates something and invites further discussion
  2. The project must motivate contributors/be exciting
  3. Tools should be distributed, experimentation cheap, and feedback fast
  4. Product should benefit from extensive peer review
  5. Tasks should be broken down into modules around which small teams can form, and there must be clear rules for fitting the modules together

These are excellent points to bear in mind for people developing crowdsourcing and crowdfunding platforms.

In his chapter “The We-Think Business” Leadbeater exposes the flaws in the standard management approach, and opines that wikinomics will change the way we work, consume, innovate, lead and own production. Well that would mean that it’s going to change just about everything, and I’d have to say he is spot on there. Later in the text Leadbeater is brave enough to quantify the impact of crowdsourcing, and estimates that it will disrupt 20 percent of the developed economies. That’s a bit of a thumb suck on his part, but it’s nice to see someone making a projection rather than talking in evangelistic general terms. He goes on to look at science, engineering and public service, and gives some specific examples of the direction that he thinks things are going in. I am very interested to see how participative consumption develops over the next few years.

The penultimate chapter “For Better or Worse?” examines the impact of this disruption on society. I found it stone cold boring, but I have to admit that it is important to consider these factors, and not just focus on the nuts and bolts of the changes that are taking place.

Overall this is a very thoughtful book that got me thinking on a deeper level about certain aspects of crowdsourcing. Rather than just talk about what is happening today, Leadbeater puts some brainpower into thinking about how the innovation process is changing, and the impact that will have on all aspects of society.

Have you read it? What did you think?

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  • Great detailed book review, I look forward to more :)

  • Thanks Christoph. I agree on your point about creating a best fit between participants and the crowdsourced product. For commercial projects you need to have incentives. Leadbeater does a good job of taking a look at what motivates participants.

    I will look into making the default comment box larger, but you can type as much as you want, and I am not sure that Disqus has that as an option. I'm still waiting for the RSS button on your blog!

  • I haven't read the book yet, but it sounds very intriguing. As a marketing professional I'm of course primarily interested as to how crowdsourcing can be beneficial to and be integrated into a brand's marketing message. I like Leadbeater's five conditions as it encourages targeted communication and modules towards differing goals and motivations of each participating group. I think one main success factor for any crowdsourcing strategy is when participants are enabled to streamline and aggregate information as much as possible to give highly relevant input. Creating a best fit between participants and the crowdsourced product as well as streamlining communication around modules improves efficiency, gives recognition and creates loyalty towards success and the brand. I'll order the book, thanks for the recommendation!

    OT: One suggestion for your website--please make the comment box bigger. It's too tiny for lengthy comments ;-) Happy New Year!

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