When Aristotle said, "The whole is greater than the sum of its parts," he could have been talking about crowdsourcing. The concept makes some IT leaders uncomfortable, no doubt, but problem solving -- like computing -- can be powerful when distributed. CIOs bent on leading the innovation charge need to figure out how social tools can help bring the trend into the enterprise, according to Christopher Sprague, executive partner with Gartner Inc.'s research arm.
City of Boston CIO Bill Oates gets it, Sprague told CIOs at the Society for Information Management's (SIM) annual conference in Boston last week. Oates introduced a pair of mobile applications that's changing how the city and its constituents interact. With Street Bump, a handheld device's accelerometer and GPS help city workers locate potholes and road deficiencies. With Citizens Connect, city dwellers can file a work order -- directly with the facilitator of the request -- and then keep tabs on its progress.
"Today, 20% of all requests to the city come through Citizens Connect," Sprague said.
Government agencies whose data is (at least theoretically) public information are perhaps a more natural fit for crowdsourcing than businesses where data is proprietary. But companies that are not required by law to make data public are also finding value in the practice, Sprague asserted. Cotton Inc., The Proctor & Gamble Co., Anheuser-Busch Companies LLC, and pharmaceutical research giants Pfizer Inc., Eli Lilly and Co. and GlaxoSmithKline plc. have posted problems on an open platform from InnoCentive Inc. Those posts can be accessed by a community of more than 300,000 registered "solvers" from around the world. (They play for a prize.)
For those CIOs unwilling or unable to open up data to public crowdsourcing platforms, Sprague recommends they figure out a way to bring that same kind of group think in-house. Cemex SAB de CV, a building materials manufacturer, launched an internal social platform to connect employees -- who speak different languages -- across the globe. The platform acts, in part, as a translation tool and has helped open up communication so effectively, projects that would have taken years to complete now take months.
"This is all about getting smarter, sharing information, troubleshooting and problem solving," Sprague said. "This is all about knowledge exchange."
A mobile app re-engineers the grain bin
What if you could halve the number of people it takes to perform a business process? Sounds farfetched, but that's precisely what Neil Mylet and his Yellow Box mobile app did for the farming industry.
To load grain into a dump truck-sized vehicle, the driver used to park the bed of the truck under the grain bin. He would then get out of the cab, stand between the cab and the bed of the truck, and signal an operator to begin the filling process. When grain threatened to overflow, the driver would swing back into the cab, pull three feet up, swing back out and continue watching as the grain barreled into the bed.
"A half-dozen times every load, they're doing this," Alex Bratton, CEO of mobile apps developer Lextech, said at the SIM conference. "It was not safe, not healthy, and it took two people."
Mylet approached Bratton, curious to see if they could digitize the process. The answer came in the form of yellow boxes equipped with a camera and secure Wi-Fi that could be bolted onto grain bins. Now, when a driver pulls up to the bin, he opens up the corresponding mobile app on his smartphone, initiates the fill process with the press of a button and moves the truck when needed -- all without getting out of the cab.
"That's the power of mobility," Bratton said. "It's not about 'how do we take websites and put them into a phone'; it's about reinventing processes in the real world even where there was no technology involved."
As for Mylet, who grew up on a family farm, the innovator is now the CEO and director of development for agricultural startup LoadOut Technologies LLC, home to the Yellow Box app.
By the numbers
Think the skills shortage is bad now? Pew Research Center has calculated that 10,000 baby boomers will be eligible for retirement every day for the next 17 years.
SIM released its annual SIM IT Trends Study, which showed the top three largest or most significant IT investments made in 2013: analytics and business intelligence (42%); customer relationship management (19.5%); and cloud computing (18.6%). Big data (12.6%) came in fifth out of ten, and business process management systems (9.1%) came in tenth out of ten.
More than 80% of smartphones sold around the world are using Android's open modular architecture, according to Clayton Christensen, Kim B. Clark professor of business administration at Harvard University. "People keep thinking Apple is in great shape, but in reality, what's happening to them is they're being disrupted," he said.
On the consumerization of technology: "The more a company's employees love technology, the less they love IT." -- Martha Heller, president, Heller Search Associates
On innovation: "Formal innovators spend double the amount of time focusing on the prioritization of ideas than do their less-structured peers." -- James Quin, director of research, Info-Tech Research Group
On IT department skills: "One of my colleagues said that when it comes to HR, we have to talk SMAC: social, mobile, analytics and cloud. Those are the four really dramatically growing areas of need on college campuses." -- Anne Margulies, CIO, Harvard University
On intuitiveness: "Every act of insight, every act of creativity, every act of genius is simply the result of a prepared mind and a serendipitous moment." -- Carl A. Hammerschlag, psychiatrist and healer
On big data technology: "Hadoop is a bag of hammers. It's a great tool, but it's not a solution." -- Jonathan Ginter, director of production marketing, ORSYP Software Inc.
This was first published in November 2013