How to use crowd-sourcing to create organisational change

Sarah Lewis2 webBarack Obama famously crowd-sourced the finance for his election campaign, a powerful example of the ability of new technology to create a great aggregate result out of lots of small voluntary actions.

But this process is not as new as it seems: Sir James Murray used a similar approach to creating the Oxford English Dictionary back in 1897.

So while crowd-sourcing is a new and sexy concept, it really refers to the age-old process of recruiting groups to complete tasks that it would be difficult, if not impossible, for one person to complete alone.

This is particularly pertinent within organisations that want to change their culture or some sort of staff behaviour. By crowd-sourcing the change, rather than trying to ‘encourage’ it, the process can be faster, easier and less traumatic for all concerned.

Wikipedia defines crowd-sourcing as ‘a process that involves outsourcing tasks to a distributed group of people. This process can occur both online and offline. The difference between crowd-sourcing and ordinary outsourcing is that a task or problem is outsourced to an undefined public rather than a specific body, such as paid employees. Crowd-sourcing is a distributed problem-solving and production model.’

What is clearly important here is the voluntary nature of the participation rather than necessarily the paid/unpaid divide. In other words crowd-sourcing can be said to occur when people are not compelled to do the tasks by a job contract, but volunteer to be part of an organisational project. It is this volunteer element that makes Appreciative Inquiry a form of crowd-sourcing for organisational change.

Appreciative Inquiry is an approach to organisational development that originated when David Cooperrider noticed how organisational growth and development can stem from understanding and building on past successes, as well as on understanding and solving problems. As he and others experimented with focusing on learning from success and growing more of what you want in an organisation, rather than concentrating solely on eliminating what you don’t want, they evolved a methodology based on clear principles of organisational life.

One of these is the principle of positivity, which basically suggests that change takes energy, and that positive energy (feeling good) is a more sustainable source of energy for change than negative energy (feeling bad).

When the field of positive psychology emerged at the end of the 1990s it fitted perfectly with Appreciative Inquiry’s emphasis on achieving excellence through focusing on what works.

I was fortunate enough to stumble upon Appreciative Inquiry as an approach to organisational change and development in the 1990s and have been incorporating it into my work ever since. And the more I work with Appreciative Inquiry, the clearer it becomes to me that the volunteer aspect of the model is crucial to its success. In this way I see a connection between crowd-sourcing and Appreciative Inquiry. So how do you use the principles of Appreciative Inquiry in order to crowd-source change?

Voluntary attendance

Ideally people are invited to attend the Appreciative Inquiry event. The event topic, the nature of the event, and the invitation have to be sufficiently compelling that people prioritise being there of their own volition. When people make an active choice to invest their time in the event, they are keen to get a good return on that. When they are compelled to be there by management diktat, it can be a recipe for frustration, and even sabotage of the process.

Voluntary participation

The voluntarism principle needs to extend to participation in any and every particular activity or discussion that is planned for the day. We never know what may be going on in people’s lives to make some topic of discussion unbearable. They may need, during the day, to prioritise their own need for some quiet time, or to make a timely phone call. It is my experience that when people are treated as adults constantly juggling competing priorities, trying to make good moment-to-moment decisions in complex contexts, they manage it very well, and with minimum disruption to the process.

Voluntary contribution

One form of crowd-sourcing is the wisdom of the crowd. Again I quote from Wikipedia: ‘Wisdom of the crowd is another type of crowd-sourcing that collects large amounts of information and aggregates it to gain a complete and accurate picture of a topic, based on the idea that a group of people is often more intelligent than an individual.’ Calling on collective intelligence is a key feature of large group processes. However people are free to chose whether and what to contribute; so the event needs to create an atmosphere where people feel safe and trusting and so desire to share information and dreams and to build connection and intimacy. And of course the general principle doesn’t hold in every case, sometimes expert knowledge is more valuable and accurate than ‘the general view’.

Voluntary further action

With most Appreciative Inquiry based events, at some point there is a shift from the process in the day to actions in the future. Often this involves forming project or work groups to progress activity. And the groups need members. Again group membership needs to be voluntary. The desire to contribute to changing things for the future needs to stem from the motivation and community built during the day. Forcing everyone to sign up to a post-event group activity, regardless of their energy, time or passion for the topic or project, just creates drag, and sometimes derails the whole process.

By using Appreciative Inquiry in this way you are essentially creating a form of in-house crowd-sourcing around the challenges of organisational change or adaptation.

The ideal outcome of an Appreciative Inquiry event is that everyone is so affected by the event process, discussions, and aspirations that they are motivated to make small changes in their own behaviour on a day to day basis that will aggregate to a bigger shift, and even transformation within the organisation as a whole. Just like Obama’s fundraising, lots of small donations lead to a large campaign chest.

In addition participants may volunteer to be part of specific groups working on specific projects. By definition these personal shifts in behaviour and the group project activity are above and beyond their job description: it is voluntary, discretionary behaviour. In this way, the voluntary basis of the Appreciative Inquiry approach qualifies it to be seen as a form of crowd-sourcing even though it is activity undertaken by paid members of an organization.

Crowd-sourcing is a great way to get big things to happen with a small amount of effort from many people and Appreciative Inquiry is a great way of bringing this into your organisation.

Sarah Lewis M.Sc. C.Psychol is an associated fellow of the British Psychological Society and a principal member of the Association of Business Psychologists. She is an acknowledged Appreciative Inquiry expert, a regular conference presenter and a published author, including ‘Positive Psychology at Work’ (Wiley) and ‘Appreciative Inquiry for Change Management’ (KoganPage). Sarah specialises in working with organisations to co-create organisational change using methodologies such as Appreciative Inquiry, and the practical application of positive psychology.   Contact:

2 Comments on How to use crowd-sourcing to create organisational change

  1. Anne Casey // April 2, 2013 at 2:12 pm // Reply

    I found this article very interesting. I particularly liked the idea that we should be doing more building on success, ie using the positive energy. I think too often we end up spending so much time problem solving, ie coming at it from a negative, that we should be thinking more about coming at it from a different angle.

    I have recently become interested in permaculture and one of the guiding principles is that you find ways to turn a problem into a solution. I have found this quite challenging but it has been such an eye-opener because if you can do it, it usually involves much less energy, which can then be used elsewhere.

  2. I really liked the idea getting everyone involved in finding the solution – rather than telling them the solution!

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