When I do media interviews or public talks, I'm almost invariably asked two questions: 1) Are there any big companies engaged in crowdsourcing? and 2) Who is using crowdsourcing effectively? One would think I could provide one example that would answer both questions, but that's suprisingly difficult to do. As I say in my book: "We know crowdsourcing exists because we've observed it in the wild. However, it's proven difficult to breed in captivity." (Ewww. Did I just quote myself?) What I mean by this is that the most successful applications of crowdsourcing occurred organically as a function of astute people wanting to serve communities with which they were already intimately familiar. By contrast, companies that have set out to apply crowdsourcing consciously have a tougher row to hoe.
Howard Rheingold, namesake of The Rheingold Award
That's why I want to award the first Rheingold Award to Dell, Inc., for its IdeaStorm initiative. As I note in the book, IdeaStorm is essentially just an updated suggestion box. But oh, the difference the updates make. Dell launched IdeaStorm in February 2007 with the fairly modest goal of enabling "you, the customer, to tell Dell what new products or services you’d like to see Dell develop." This is the point when most wizened media observers roll their eyes. For the last several years we've grown accustomed to watching Fortune 500 companies pay lip service to social media without actually adhering to the principles that make the groundswell so powerful. To be honest, I thought IdeaStorm was just another example of this unfortunate, predictable trend. I couldn't have been more wrong.
It wasn't long before Dell was dealing with more than it'd bargained for. Within ten days Linux fanboys swamped the site, demanding a Dell pre-loaded with the open source operating system. At first Dell stumbled, moving to censor the, er, robust conversation that ensued. But then Dell showed it was serious about creating a partnership with its customers, announcing it would bow to the crowd and release a PC pre-loaded with the Ubuntu version of Linux. Go crowd. Go Dell.
Since then, Dell has quietly but persistently managed the site, taking pains to communicate with its community members and install changes to the site according to suggestions from users. Crowdsourcing generally requires a vibrant community, and such a resource can not be built overnight, and it can't be bought. It can, however, be built through a lot of painstaking effort and humility, which is just what Dell has displayed on IdeaStorm.
The fruits of the IdeaStorm partnership culminated on August 12, when Dell rolled out nine new laptops, all of which incorporated design elements proposed, promoted and debated by the IdeaStorm community. Instead of using IdeaStorm to put lipstick on a pig, Dell patiently cultivated debate and then implemented the best (and most popular) ideas into real world products. In other words, they listened instead of talking, and then they acted. Crowdsourcing doesn't always conform to the need for quarterly results, but it can handily reward patience and long-term thinking.
But don't take my word for it. Ann All at The Visible Enterprise wrote a fine summary of her interview with IdeaStorm's community manager, Vida Killian. She also wrote a study for Deloitte-Touche that contrasted Dell with other corporate attempts at online communities that have faltered. Here was one of my favorite insights: "Financial benefits are harder to pinpoint, a fact that may lead some companies to pass on the idea," writes All. "Says Killian:
It’s not your traditional ROI model. Back to the culture, it supports the fact that you don’t need a hard number at the end of the day. It’s the right thing to do, we want to listen to our customers, so let’s do it."
Here here. Congratulations Dell on winning the very first Rheingold (and truth be told, inspiring its creation). Now I just have to figure out what a Rheingold should look like.