Read the Report | by Evan St. Lifer
At a time when schools across the country are struggling with how best to operationalize in order to successfully deliver sustained and effective instruction, and to ensure students are consistently connected, engaged, and avidly learning, an intriguing title by two academic researchers might just offer the critical, just-in-time, practical advice and tactical support that districts sorely need.
Unleashing the Crowd: Collaborative Solutions to Wicked Business and Societal Problems, by Ann Majchrzak and Arvind Malhotra, documents how both public and private organizations can best maximize the crowdsourcing process to solve big, complex, intractable, societal and business problems, which they characterize as “wicked.”
School leaders—and their respective stakeholders—can undoubtedly relate. They should take notice that there is a resource out there—crowdsourcing—that when executed effectively, can yield transformational strategies and solutions that are both scalable and sustainable. This process is of no less import to solution providers, who must be able to both tap into the ethos of their customer base, as well as to understand and pivot to stay ahead of their customers’ changing needs and priorities.
First things first: what exactly is crowdsourcing? As the Senior Advisor for InnovateK12, a crowdsourcing company that works with schools as well as solution providers in the PK-12 segment, we seek to help our partners better understand their stakeholders, to provide much deeper insight that transcends what they would get from a static survey. And that’s key: crowdsourcing uses technology to integrate a fluid and ongoing social dynamic that allows ideas to morph and evolve, based on the constitution of the stakeholder group.
What makes Unleashing the Crowd so intriguing, and so relevant for the PK-12 community, is its authors’ insistence that there’s a way to do this better, that the intellectual capacity of the crowd or group is being underutilized; call it a best practices guide to understanding and leveraging “your crowd.” I don’t believe there is a school leader in America right now that wouldn’t be interested in a better way to mine the collective intellectual capacity of his/her school community if they knew it would yield creative, compelling, and above all, practical solutions to continued vexing and unprecedented problems exacerbated by the pandemic, and perpetuated by racial injustice.
The authors posit that knowledge gleaned from the group, as a whole, is more important than “who they are,” and that the best collaboration and ultimately the ability to solve “wicked” problems, occurs through the “crowd responding to, reacting to, and building on others’ contributions,” rather than through any one singular viewpoint or contribution.
Majchrzak and Malhotra home in on a traditional crowdsourcing pursuit—idea sharing—and contrast that with what they call Collective Production, which they explain liberates participants to release or express their knowledge about an identified problem, and possible solutions, into a “common knowledge pool.” One of the book’s big distinctions between these two approaches is the avoidance of spoon-feeding specific ideas/preordained solutions to the group, which can happen with idea sharing, and instead unleashing the group’s full intellectual power to tackle a complex challenge through cross-pollination of knowledge.
Specifically, these “novel and powerful” knowledge combinations fostered via Collective Production may come from what the authors call “creative abrasion,” in which the disagreements among the participants over perspectives yield a “novel third perspective.” The new combinations of knowledge may be triggered by metaphors or analogies that spin off new thoughts.
For school leaders as well as solution providers, building trust and a more symbiotic relationship with their stakeholders is more critical now than ever before. Crowdsourcing can ensure that every voice in the school community can be heard, not simply because each person may have a different opinion, but more importantly, because each person plays a different role in helping the crowd collectively innovate and gravitate toward authentic progress and real problem-solving.
Read Evan’s article on Using Technology to Mine “Customer Wisdom”
Evan St. Lifer serves as a Senior Advisor to nascent and early-stage Edtech companies as well as companies devoted to the social/emotional growth and well-being of children and families. Evan met Lisa and edWeb during his 15-year tenure at Scholastic, where he held leadership positions in a variety of capacities, developing businesses and products serving a range of markets including Early Childhood, PreK-12, After School, Family Engagement, Summer Learning, and Libraries. He and edWeb share many areas of mutual interest, including delivering for teachers more fluid, intuitive, and powerful ways to collaborate and share best practices, 24-7. Which is why he’s committed to turbocharging teacher learning communities. Evan and Lisa have both recently joined the Advisory Council for the ERDI Alliance for Education Impact.
He most recently helped launched the Florida Technology Foundation, the non-profit and educational off-shoot of the Florida Technology Council—which focuses on the needs and priorities of the state’s technology sector and advises the state legislature on information technology policy. Before his career at Scholastic, Evan was a journalist for nearly two decades, which included investigative reporting for The New York Times and culminating in a five-year stint as Editor-in-Chief of School Library Journal.
Ann Majchrzak is the USC Associates’ Chaired Professor of Business Administration for Marshall. She teaches and does research on digital innovation. She has held concurrent appointments as a visiting professor at Esade Business School, Ramon Llull University, Barcelona, and at LUISS, Rome School of Business and Management in the areas of Innovation and Organization. She has a 2020 book: Unleashing the Crowd: Collaborative Solutions for Wicked Business and Societal Problems, a Marshall webinar for Covid19 & Small Businesses, and a Tommy Talk on the subject.
Arvind Malhotra’s area of research focus on crafting innovation problems, open innovation approaches, crowd creativity, crowdsourcing for innovation, using crowds to solve complex societal problems and the future of work. His research projects include studying successful open-innovation organizational and extra-organizational structures, creating the process and structure for large-scale collaboration and management of knowledge in extra-organizational collaborative contexts. His book, Unleashing the Crowd: Collaborative Solutions to Wicked Business and Societal Problems (Palgrave Macmillan, 2019), focuses on how organizations can leverage crowds for solving wicked business and societal problems.