Crowdsourcing: A Red-Balloon-Finding Contest Shows the Future of Recruiting

A Contest to Identify the Most Effective “Finding Tool”

This story begins with a famous government agency, DARPA, wanting to test the effectiveness of the available tools/approaches to locate missing objects or individuals, i.e., pieces of downed aircraft, wanted criminals, or missing children. Because this task was so large in scope, it turned to a labor model growing in popularity among progressive organizations: contests!

In this challenge, participants were tasked with finding 10 red weather balloons that were secretly placed in diverse locations throughout the U.S. for just 24-hours. Approaches that were considered by 4,000+ contestants included using satellite/aerial photography, iPhone applications, and Internet-based collaboration and networking tools. Competition was fierce; one team even placed a fake balloon to throw other teams off. Like finding high quality, available talent with a rare skill set, finding 10 weather balloons dispersed across the expanse that is the U.S. in just 24 hours is a herculean task.

You’ll probably be surprised to learn that it took the winning team from MIT a mere 8 hours and 52 minutes to find all 10 balloons, in 10 different states, at a cost of $40,000. These results amazed everyone involved, including the team from MIT, which had only learned about the contest four days before it began.

The Connection Between Finding Balloons and Recruiting

The method used by both DARPA and MIT to solve this challenge is known as crowdsourcing. In this case, DARPA used crowdsourcing to staff its initiative, while the MIT team used crowdsourcing to source information. Crowdsourcing is a term coined for a new form of labor in which tasks that would have traditionally been allocated to an employee are instead allocated to an ad hoc formed, undefined group, or crowd.

It is the labor solution that has been used to build and maintain the powerhouse online encylocpedia, Wikipedia, as well as numerous other corporate projects such as the Netflix Prize. To the surprise of many, this DARPA challenge proved that crowdsourcing is the most effective finding tool on the planet, bar none.

I Use Social Media — So Why Am I Not Getting These Amazing Results?

Social media usage in recruiting is a hot trend, but very few recruiters are producing significant results via their efforts. Online forums are abuzz with recruiters who have tried recruiting via social media and given up, because it simply didn’t work for them. Other recruiters laud the success of their efforts, not in recruiting the masses, but in finding that one great hire who made them a hero among managers. To those who have tried and failed, I argue that the tool didn’t fail, but rather the approach to using the tool.

Simply being active on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, etc., is not a solution. Social media recruiting, like all strategic efforts, requires a well-thought-out approach that incorporates the critical success factors that transform an ordinary effort into a world-class solution.

10 Critical Success Factors for Effective “Crowdsourcing”

The following is a list of 10 critical success factors that must be incorporated into crowdsourcing centric recruiting solutions such as social media efforts and employee referral programs for them to reach maximum effectiveness.

  1. The Kevin Bacon principle: crowdsourcing and employee referral programs both work because top performers know, trust, and have relationships with other top performers. As the scope of program participation grows larger, the probability of identifying all probable talent increases. The key learning: all organizations should be monitoring the participation rate of relevant parties in crowdsouring initiatives, most notably the participation rate of proven top performers.
  2. You must have a plan: if an ad hoc managed effort produces results, it’s purely out of luck! Programs capable of producing predictable and repeatable results require a comprehensive plan and feedback loops that help identify design issues that when positively addressed can improve program effectiveness.
  3. Leverage the search work through collaboration: the underlying success principle of any crowdsourcing effort is large-scale collaboration. You can’t reach the critical mass of individuals required for an effective search if you rely exclusively on recruiters. The most effective search efforts marshal the time and contacts of anyone and everyone who can be cajoled into helping, including your entire employee base, their families, alumni, vendors, customers, and anyone else who likes your organization. Collaboration also requires that information flows both ways, so that the crowd doesn’t waste time sourcing information already found. Just like in a scavenger hunt, learning what the other teams have already produced can go a long way at helping any particular team advance.
  4. Rewards drive results: you can’t get widespread collaboration without some kind of motivating factor. The MIT approach relies heavily on rewards. The reward schema was an inverted pyramid where 50% of the reward went to the first individual to find the target, then 25% went to the individual who invited that person to participate, and 12.5 % to whoever invited that person, and so on up to a total of $4,000. In any corporate crowdsourcing model, reward individuals outside the corporation who identify top talent or that invite those individuals. The rewards don’t have to be in cash; they could include coffee cards, offers of free services/products, or even donations to charity.
  5. A broad range of social media outlets are required: Crowdsourcing works only if you use every type of available social media outlet. In addition to the commonly used LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter, every type of communication and collaboration mechanism must be used, including SMS, Internet forums, video sharing sites, meet-up groups, professional associations, etc.
  6. Worldwide collaboration is needed: even though the balloons were placed exclusively within the U.S., the MIT effort would not have been successful without extensive international participation. It turns out that globally located individuals could indirectly produce finds by using the segment of their network that was located in the U.S. For a corporate model to work, it must not limit its social networking to sites and individuals located in the same country where the job is.
  7. A continuous search approach is superior: although crowdsourcing can produce amazing results in a short time, it is even more effective and less time-consuming if it is a continuous operation. The best sourcing approaches that target top performers always begin looking to identify candidates long before a position becomes open (pre-need sourcing).
  8. A relationship is required: although identifying top performers is an important first step, in many cases, you won’t be able to convince them to actually apply for a position without building a relationship first. The most effective relationships are based on learning, benchmarking, and professional growth rather than the promise of a job.
  9. The referral program must be expanded and revitalized: in order to be effective, the process for submitting names and narrowing down the submissions to the very best must be easy and responsive. The best approach for crowdsourcing is to use the existing employee referral process, but update it so that it is more effective. Referral program participants should also be encouraged to pre-assess potential referrals based on their competencies but also on their fit to the corporation.
  10. Recruiters must be educated: rather than actually doing most of the networking, recruiters must be educated and rewarded for their role in managing the networking process. They must become experts in understanding social media collaboration, so that they can attract more participants, retain the ones they have, and then educate these participants on how to produce better results.

Final Thoughts

The effectiveness of employee referral programs has historically provided some evidence to the value of having a large number of individuals looking; however, the balloon contest should be a wake-up call to all recruiting managers that social media collaboration is literally … the future of sourcing.

Managers should also realize that the DARPA contest proves that you must move beyond the current hodgepodge of uncoordinated social media recruiting efforts toward the more scientific and more inclusive managed crowdsourcing model. Direct sourcing is the future, and crowdsouring is what will make it feasible. Managing effectively, direct sourcing initiatives will produce living databases of talent that can be used for recruiting, competency trending, learning partner identification, benchmarking, and a wealth of other opportunities.

About Dr John Sullivan

Dr John Sullivan is an internationally known HR thought-leader from the Silicon Valley who specializes in providing bold and high business impact; strategic Talent Management solutions to large corporations.

Check Also

Hiring Innovators – The Highest Impact Action In Talent Management (Highlighting the benefits from hiring innovators)

Hiring has the highest bus. impact in HR, and innovators produce the highest impact of …

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *