Thursday 11 February 2016

Two key tactics for crowd-sourcing - lessons from "who wants to be a millionaire"

Crowdsourcing is a popular topic within KM circles. However there are two ways to access the wisdom of the crowd, as the popular game "Who wants to be a millionaire" shows us.

Image from wikimedia commons
This popular TV game, syndicated world-wide, poses increasingly difficult questions to the participants, while giving them one chance to "ask the audience", which allows them to see what percentages of the studio audience favour each of the four possible answers to the question.

The Millionare strategy guide tells us - "Work on the basis of asking the audience on the first question you are unable to answer for yourself. Once you get through to the later stages the audience becomes unreliable, as on the difficult questions there may still be some audience members who know the right answer, but their contribution will be blotted out by everybody else just having a guess".

So asking the audience is a sound tactic ONLY for easier questions, when a large proportion of the audience has experience to share. 

In this case it can be useful to ask the entire crowd and take an average answer; for example the often quoted example of using the crowd to guess the weight of a pig, or the number of marbles in a jar, when the average of the guesses from the crowd is more accurate than the guesses of individual experts. In the "Who want to be a millionaire game, the audience (crowd) is very helpful on the easy questions which fall into the contestant's individual "knowledge blindspot" (knowledge of soap opera characters, for example, or soccer teams).

Where the majority of the crowd has little or no experience of a topic, then they become less reliable en masse. An average of the crowd responses is not valuable, as the signal from those who know the answer is drowned out by the noise from those who are guessing, and you (as a knowledge seeker) can't tell the guesses from the valid answers.  The tactic in the later stages of the Millionare game, when the questions become more specific and more challenging, is not to ask the crowd but to call an expert ("Phone a friend").

At work, for tricky questions, you do not ask the crowd directly for the answer. Instead you canvas the crowd to find the few people with experience, and then you ask them individually for the answer. This is how communities of practice forums work - you ask the crowd a question, and only those with experience and knowledge give you an answer. You find the experts in the crowd and use their knowledge directly, rather than taking aggregate "crowd knowledge".

The key to crowdsourcing for business, just as in the Millionaire game, is knowing when to ask the audience en masse, and when to look in the crowd for a friend to phone.

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