If you’re trying to solve a problem or come up with great work, the more people involved the better. In any given group, the cream will rise to the top: the best ideas and the best answers will inevitably emerge.

That, at least, is the theory behind crowdsourcing. It’s the idea that instead of relying on one person to come up with the answer to a problem, you should put out an open call for help, then wait to see what happens.

Crowdsourcing in practice

Crowdsourcing can be applied in many different situations. And there’s no doubt that in a lot of them, it works. A good example is open source software. This has been crowdsourced for many years. Because the underlying source code which makes up an open source package is available to anyone who wants to change it, it’s very easy for someone with a good idea and a bit of technical nous to make a difference.

Take the open source web browser, Firefox. Unlike closed-source packages like Microsoft’s Internet Explorer, improvements to Firefox have been conceived, implemented and tested by the crowd.

The result? In January this year, Firefox overtook Internet Explorer as Europe’s most popular web browser. A testament to the power of crowdsourcing? Well, perhaps – although other factors – like Internet Explorer’s frequent security problems – may also have played their part.

Crowdsourcing for market research

Crowdsourcing isn’t just about software development. It can be applied to almost any situation where you need work doing or a problem solving. A common use for crowdsourcing is market research. Instead of assuming you know what your customers want, or asking a small group to tell you what they think, crowdsourcing lets you cast the net much wider.

You don’t just have to ask your current customers. You could do what Dell did with its IdeaStorm project. Open up a website which makes it easy for people to submit, discuss and vote on ideas, then see what happens. Who knows what will emerge.

Apparently, ideas gleaned from IdeaStorm led the computing giant to introduce light-up keys to its laptops and encouraged it to offer more colour choices to laptop buyers. Could crowdsourcing ideas lead to improvements in your products too?

Clearly, IdeaStorm has worked well for Dell, with its multi-million pound marketing budget, plus its ability to generate publicity for such a large-scale crowdsourcing effort. But not every company is able to create the critical mass required for such a project to bear fruit.

Design by crowdsourcing

Smaller businesses interested in crowdsourcing may need to find other ways to make it work for them. An obvious option is design. Why pay one logo designer to create a logo for your company, when you could crowdsource designs from hundreds of designers on a website like 99Designs?

Here’s how it works: you post a brief for whatever you want designed. Then designers ‘compete’ to create the best design. For the business commissioning the work, the benefit is clear: they get to choose from hundreds of potential options, but only have to pick and pay for one.

It sounds too good to be true. And when you dig a little deeper, perhaps it is. Will a designer who knows they probably won’t even get paid at the end of it really give their all? Will they bother to spend time and effort understanding your business and its objectives, to create a design that meets them?

In fact, will the best designers really bother creating designs for crowdsourced projects at all?

Use crowdsourcing wisely

The truth about crowdsourcing is that it’s unlikely to revolutionise the way you do things. But it can be a useful tool when looking for information, feedback and inspiration.

Just be wary. Crowdsourcing can encourage superficiality. For instance, with no guaranteed reward, you can’t expect people to put an enormous amount of effort into helping your crowdsourcing project – particularly if you’re asking them to do something which is their livelihood.

For projects which require a high level of commitment – like redesigning your website, or developing a new product – crowdsourcing may not be the answer. But when you’re seeking opinions, feedback or advice, it can be an excellent place to start.