by: Roger Dooley
Crowdsourcing has occasionally been an alternative to doing things the old-fashioned way by, say, paying an expert. While many indirect effects of crowdsourcing exist, there has been little direct impact on employees within a given organization.
When Wikipedia let many thousands of users create its content, no professional writers or editors were displaced. Encyclopedia publishers didn’t all fire their staffs and start wikis. Travel reviews written by users haven’t put the big travel guides out of business, nor have those firms decided to cut staff and let travelers do all the work. An interesting post by Tom Foremski at ZDNet describes one of the first examples I have seen of one company cutting paid staff to let users do the work for free:
Brad Smith, CEO of Intuit, was just on stage and he spoke about trying to harness the web and the tremendous number of users, around 50 million.
He said he had asked his managers to figure out what salaries can be cut because users are volunteering to do those jobs for free. Why should Intuit pay salaries when users are doing a far better job than Intuit staff?
Mr Smith said that users are providing better answers to key questions than Intuit staff. He is looking to try to harness that resource in many ways. [From Will social media lead to user generated unemployment? ]
I’ve visited any number of software support forums, and it’s not uncommon to find a mix of company techies and well-informed users helping out other users having problems. This is a great model, as often those using the software in a production environment have a better grasp of some aspects of the product’s use. Also, if the user community is big enough, there’s a better chance that “long tail” problems, i.e., those that occur infrequently, might be seen by solved by a user with a similar environment.
I do find it quite bizarre that a CEO would suggest sacking techs because the users are so effective. In my experience, these employee/volunteer communities evolve over time and there’s rarely a surplus of company experts hanging around with nothing to do. As word gets out to the Intuit support community, the implication that the volunteers are so effective that paid staff is being let go could be quite damaging to the morale and motivation of the volunteer helpers.
Community participation is a delicate balance. If a member arrived at the community seeking help and found both a welcoming group and the answers he needed, that member may decide to stick around. Soon, he may be helping other members with even less knowledge. After a year or two passes, the clueless newbie may have become a true expert, and may still be helping others.
If Intuit has excess tech support staff, I’d lay the “blame” more on their products getting better and the universe of users gradually getting more familiar with software and technology. Most of Intuit’s products do the same thing they have been doing for years - it’s hard to imagine that the firm hasn’t incorporated user feedback and problem reports into each new generation of the products. Still, Smith’s statement is provocative and in some ways indicative of the way Web communities are changing the way business is done.