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January 26, 2018updated 30 Jan 2018 5:04pm

Look to crowdsourcing to solve labour shortages

Crowdsourcing project work is fertile ground for progress because it allows businesses to overcome traditional challenges.

By James Nunns

By now, crowdsourcing is a mainstream idea. The successes of platforms such as Kickstarter mean that few people are unaware of the collaborative and ideas based culture that the internet has allowed to flourish.

Richard Davies, VP, Strategic Advisory, DXC Technology and Managing Director at Leading Edge Forum.

At the core of the success of such a collaborative model is a dedication to executing ideas: if you are willing to help the project be competed, you will be rewarded in material ways, whether it is special gifts or bonuses for financially backing a product you believe in, or in payment for contributing your skills to a project in need of them. It is this second option that has increasingly exciting possibilities, as businesses look for new ways to access and unleash specialised talent which is in short supply.

Crowdsourcing project work is fertile ground for progress because it allows businesses to overcome traditional challenges. Firstly, the scalability of crowd sourced labour means that talent can be treated as a service. By inviting groups with specific skills to generate and build on innovative ideas, businesses can quickly gain access to the number of workers they need to complete a project. Circumventing the problems of hiring and orientating new full-time employees to your organisation allows for more time on defining and planning the task at hand.

By opening up the needs of the business to the internet, it is possible to gain access to talent around the world that would be otherwise missed. This kind of specialised talent may not want the restrictions of full-time employment, making them difficult to attract to a company. Or it may be a case of not wanting such specialised well-paid employees permanently in the business. Individuals tend to be more open in web-based projects where they are not being physically judged or scrutinized, and thus can feel more willing to share. Once the focus is shifted from hiring to the quality completion of a project, more time can be dedicated to defining methodology, and finding the right sources of talent. Just imagine using niche online forums as hiring grounds for your projects, or posting an open job brief on your company’s website for completion. Such access can reduce the risk of wasting time and resources on a job which is poorly planned out.

As such, crowdsourcing works best when the task is generalised and non-confidential, so that details can be easily shared, and the parameters for success (and therefore payment to the successful individual) can be clearly stated. While workers can potentially benefit from the lack of physical supervision and focus purely on the quality execution of the task, employers can benefit by being able to set up the metrics by which success and failure is judged. Businesses have a great deal of control, yet the atmosphere is free and open, without the usual stresses associated with managing people in full-time jobs. The quality and delivery of the work is the entire focus. Such openness invites greater experimentation and innovation.

To take this idea further, sites like Topcoder and Kaggle include ‘high scores.’ By adding a competitive edge to proceedings, crowdsourcing platforms can be ideal training grounds for those looking to improve the skills businesses are in such short supply of. If a data scientist is not coming out at the top of the table, they can see how far off they were, and encourage a dialogue with other community members to see what methods they could use to improve next time.

Scores are targets of excellence, and to the highly competitive, they are there to be surpassed. This idea is applicable to a business’s own permanent employees too. If full-time data scientists or machine learning architects are encouraged to test their expertise against the wider world, they may discover shortfalls in their knowledge, or new insights. Successful crowdsourcing platforms have consequently become hotbeds of knowledge sharing, inviting everyone to improve their skills and address the talent shortage.

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Top tech companies such as Google and Facebook are already well known to use these strategies to sharpen the skills of their employees and recruit. They are well known to run competitions on Kaggle and Topcoder, and offer jobs to the best of the best. A recent example was Google running a machine learning competition based around classifying YouTube videos, with a $100,000 prize offered to the winner. They simultaneously solve a business problem, and find new talent. So much is this a part of their strategy already that Google purchased Kaggle in 2017.

In a time where the positive influences of the internet are being openly questioned, crowdsourcing’s open learning culture, and focus on solving problems displays an unusually idealistic view of the powers of the web. With access to a flexible and skilled workforce around the globe, businesses can look to crowdsourcing to provide specialised project help as and when they need it. It is treating talent as a service, rather than getting distracted by HR related problems. Furthermore, the competitive yet collaborative learning culture of crowdsourcing platforms may prove to be the perfect academy for learning or sharpening the skills which are in such short supply.

This is just one approach to address the wider talent shortage. If the digital world is to make up for the shortfall in talent, it must understand there is no one size fits all approach. Other innovative approaches to explore include harnessing automation, AI, partnering with incubators or accelerators, or acquiring smaller tech companies for their workforce. To leverage these businesses must understand their needs and plan accordingly. This should be accompanied by more traditional approaches such as inspiring new generations of both genders to choose a career in technology.

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