A Face in the Crowd

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The other day while looking up something on Wikipedia, I was greeted by a prominent note at the top of the page asking me for a mere $3.00 donation to fund the website’s ongoing efforts.    Wikipedia is an amazing, volunteer service, right  – the modern equivalent of the Oxford English Dictionary?  What’s $3.00 to me, really?   Without more thought, I clicked on the PayPal button and made my donation. Since then, I’ve been thinking a lot about crowd sourcing and its relationship to teambuilding.  The above-mentioned Wikipedia describes “Crowdsourcing” as follows: “Crowdsourcing is the practice of obtaining needed services, ideas, or content by soliciting contributions from a large group of people, and especially from an online community, rather than from traditional employees or suppliers…  It combines the efforts of numerous self-identified volunteers or part-time workers, where each contributor of their own initiative adds a small portion to the greater result. Crowdsourcing is distinguished from outsourcing in that the work comes from an undefined public rather than being commissioned from a specific, named group.” By clicking on Wikipedia’s donation link, I essentially join the “undefined public” as a “self-identified contributor”, adding a small piece to a much larger puzzle.  As an individual, my piece ($3.00) is rather modest.  But when joined with others, that $3.00 soon becomes $300, then $3000, then $3 million.  Pretty cool, huh?  And crowdsourcing is not just about fundraising.  For instance, I once read about a scientific campaign that asked mass groups of video gamers to help figure out ways to fold proteins using an online modeling software.  The gamers jumped into the challenge with relish, applying their unique visual sense and manual dexterity to assist in a larger, more epic, philanthropic campaign.  Even Wikipedia, itself, is an example of crowdsourcing at work:  thousands of people providing small bits of content to a greater, collaborative body of work. But is crowdsourcing the same as “teamwork”?  In a way yes, in a way no. Teams, by general definition, are small groups of people, working together with mutual agreements and procedures, for a common goal.   Apart from the “small group” part, this is all sounds quite similar to crowdsourcing.   In both constructs, people must blend their special skills, knowledge and abilities (and even financial resources) to make the collective unit stronger and more varied.    Nevertheless, I see three significant differences between teams- at-work vs. crowds online. 1)      Accountability:  In crowdsourcing, the individual is relatively unimportant.   If you add a single tile to the collective mosaic, great.  But if you don’t, no one is going to get on your case.    There are just so many others out there to pick up the slack and move the freight train of progress forward.   Contrast this to a 5-person work team, where your individual contribution is vital to the team’s success.  Quite simply, you need to do what you say you’re going to do, or the whole group falls down.  There’s no hiding in numbers. 2)      Communication:  In crowd-sourced projects, people often send in their offerings anonymously via the internet, where a coordinator then assembles and sorts the disparate pieces into a final product.   Very little give and take is required between the various contributors.   Now consider a small team at work:  talking, negotiating, planning, strategizing, and resolving conflicts.  Language skills and communication are vital to the team’s success and ultimate profitability.   Once again, there’s nowhere to hide. 3)      Covering for each other’s weaknesses :   In crowd sourcing, you’re often being asked to donate whatever you do best, without much awareness of the strengths and weaknesses of others. You’re all anonymous.   Teams, on the other hand, function as more than just a compilation of individual strengths.   Frequently, your task, as a teammate, is both to add your specific subject-matter expertise AND to cover for other people’s weaknesses.   Everything is enmeshed  entwined and intermingled.  Perhaps, for example, your teammates are all introverts with subdued public speaking skills.   Then you had better be the one to pick up the slack when it comes to making your presentation to management.   You need to be strong where they are weak, and vice versa. Looking back, I’m glad I was able to be a small cog in such a worthy organization as Wikipedia.    Point-click-done…donation made.   Crowdsourcing can be amazing, valuable and, in this case, dead easy — floating along, faceless, in the internet ether, acting locally but making an impact globally.    But thank goodness for small work “teams” as well, operating down there in the trenches, doing important work in close confines.   Four is company, five’s a team.
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