Barack 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, a project he began 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.
Wikipedia defines it thus: ‘Crowd-sourcing is 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.’ But also says ‘Crowd-sourcing is a distributed problem-solving and production model.’
It seems to me that the distinction is the voluntary nature of the participation. In other words people are not compelled to do the tasks by a job contract, but volunteer to be part of the project. It is this volunteer element that makes me think Appreciative Inquiry can be seen as a form of in-house crowd-sourcing.
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.
- Voluntary attendance
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 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.
- Voluntary further action
With most Appreciative Inquiry based events, there is at some point a shift from the process in the day to actions in the future. Often this takes the form of project groups. This again 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.
This is where I think Appreciative Inquiry can be seen as a form of in-house crowd-sourcing. The ideal outcome of an Appreciative Inquiry event is that everyone is 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, even transformation. In addition they 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.
So my argument is, that 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.
What do you think is Appreciative Inquiry a crowd-sourcing process or plain old outsourcing of the management tasks of information collation, analysis and action planning for change?
Wikipedia reference: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crowdsourcing 11/7/2012