Crowdsourcing Beyond the Buzzword

by Ryan Holliday, J.D.
University of Tennessee






A few years ago, crowdsourcing was all the rage in technology circles. Whether it was news or encyclopedias or software development, the feeling was that the wisdom of the crowd would drive the future. Some parts of that have been proven to be true. Wikipedia, for example, is an excellent crowd-fed resource. Other parts, not so much—like the numerous, defunct social-news websites and social-media platforms. But, like a lot of other trends that get just a little too big, there was a fundamentally good idea at its roots.

After all, crowdsourcing is effectively just a polished-up marketing term for collaboration and information sharing. The failure of some of the tech-based ideas was a lack of control over the crowd being sourced. Maybe my news consumption shouldn’t be voted on by a collection of staunch ideologues, and maybe I don’t need my life decisions being influenced by a few hundred social-media connections that I haven’t seen in decades.

On the other hand, if I begin with the end in mind and select the appropriate crowd, I can get actual, measurable value. I’m going to get mostly noise and very little signal if I throw my procurement questions out to an entire list of contacts on LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter. But that doesn’t mean that crowdsourcing can’t help me; it just means I need to narrow the field. In this case, the crowd that I want to reach is comprised of other professionals in higher-education procurement, along with those working for our suppliers.

Finding that unique crowd can be easier said than done, because it can exist in a lot of places, both online and off: conferences, emails, listservs, and industry groups on social media. We should all find a few places where our own crowd communicates, and make our way into that crowd. When we’ve done that, crowdsourcing is an incredibly valuable tool.

Of course, it’s not the magic solution that the technology world promoted a few years ago. Popular answers aren’t necessarily correct, and the loudest voices can still be wrong. Still, it’s a great place to start, and it can get you headed in the right direction. The more we share our questions and our knowledge, the better all of our operations can be.

So, find your crowd, and if you don’t have one already, you can always start with me!

Ryan Holliday, J.D., is Strategic Procurement Manager for the University of Tennessee (System Administration) and an attorney licensed in Tennessee. Ryan’s professional focus is strategic procurement and process improvement. Prior to working for UT, Ryan practiced law, and has a background in technology and business. Email: