How Leveraging Open Global Expertise Platforms Will Change Crowdsourcing Innovation


Ben Kerschberg

January 23, 2017

American innovator Bill Joy, co-founder of Sun Microsystems, annunciated a simple principle. No matter the enterprise for which you work, the smartest people in your field work for someone else. Joy’s Law is a profound assertion. For any enterprise, it means that the greatest relevant expertise resides outside its boundaries, and the main challenge for those charged with innovation is to find and leverage that third-party expertise. This talent resides everywhere – in universities, in an expert’s apartment in Berlin, and even right next door. Individually, finding that expertise may be impossible in any given discipline. By contrast, an open platform with hundreds of thousands of community members (i.e. experts) allows enterprises to tackle even the most complex problems. This is sometimes known as “crowdsourcing”.

Leveraging talent through the wisdom of the crowds is not a new concept. During the early 1400s, Florence’s Wool Merchant Guild issued no fewer than five (5) lucrative contests related to the construction of Santa Maria del Fiore (il Duomo). See Ross King, Brunelleschi’s Dome (Walker & Company 2000). The Guild realized at least one critical trait of contests to which we will return later – the need to granularize them in order to attract the finest artisans in each respective trade needed for different parts of the church: masons, carpenters, engineers, and sculptors, among others. These contests often overlapped in a grand project to build the world’s widest dome.

Modern contests are equally ambitious. Scientists use the global expertise that an open platform brings to bear in order to position every solar panel on the International Space Station (“ISS”) to maximize power collection within specific parameters. Harvard Medical School uses platform-based global expertise to solve complex genomics projects.

The NASA ISS Longeron Shadowing Contest

The ISS is a habitable satellite in low Earth orbit. The ISS serves as a weightless space environment research laboratory in which crew members conduct experiments in a variety of scientific fields.  A joint initiative involving (i) the National Tournament Lab; (ii) Harvard University; (iii) ISS; and (iv) the ISS Vehicle Integrated Program and Environmental Resources (“VIPER”), the NASA ISS Longeron Shadowing Contest was a competition to develop an algorithm to position the ISS’ solar arrays so as to maximize power generation and stabilize the space station’s long, thin tethering beams, known as longerons, which are highly sensitive to temperature. The winning contest had to account for every second—the longest permissible internal—of the ISS’ 92-minute Earth orbit.

To optimize power to the ISS, these arrays must be oriented in such a way that maximizes sunlight along the solar panels while minimizing suboptimal and uneven shadowing along the longerons. This is an extraordinarily difficult problem, but not one that gave NASA or the ISS pause to using platform-based expertise beyond its own firewalls.

Harvard Medical School (“HMS”) and DNA Sequencing

Harvard Medical School enlisted platform-based expertise to help find a faster, more accurate solution for a tool that calculates the edit distance between a query DNA string and the original DNA string. The medical school previously was able to process 100,000 sequences in 2,000 seconds (33 minutes, 20 seconds). HMS then dedicated for an entire year a full-time Harvard developer who reduced the computational time to 400 seconds (6 mins., 40 secs.). With only $6,000 in prize money, 733 registrants and 122 platform-based experts submitted working algorithms. The winner provided HMS with a winning solution that clocked in at 16 seconds.

The success and difficulties of these two platform-based expert solutions demonstrate several key points.

  1. The enterprises knew what they wished to achieve from the start. This is rare.
  2. Both ISS and HMS partnered with an open platform that understands the unique manner by which to incentivize its expert community. This understanding takes years to develop.
  3. With the help of their platform-based experts, the enterprises developed, maintained, and promoted formal, structural, verified, and quantitative contests that produce maximally operating extreme outcomes such as HMS’ extraordinary reduction in DNA-related edit sequences.
  4. Fourth, all development took place in Amazon Web Services’ (“AWS”) cloud-based environment. Cloud computing allows a platform to control a structured environment in which experts can compete. The platform is scalable as necessary at only marginal cost, and AWS provides world-class security in both public and private clouds with an uptime of over 99.9999%.
  5. HMS learned that it paid a fraction of the the cost it would have paid to hire an IT consultant, as well as its own internally dedicated university resource (coder).

Platform-Based Expert Innovation

An enterprise’s most valuable asset it its people. Therein lies the tacit knowledge of how resources are used, how processes work, and the values and ethos of the enterprise. Yet knowledge workers leave, taking extraordinary, stored assets with them. Others find themselves the innocent victim of Joy’s Law: there is simply someone out there who is better, and that resource must be found. Enterprises that do find them in open global expertise platforms will realize comparative advantages over their competition in terms of level of expertise, lower margins, and faster delivery cycles, among other metrics.

Yet why do managers systematically underutilize their employees’ capital? See Clayton M. Christensen & Michael Overdorf, Meeting The Challenge of Disruptive Change (Harv. Bus. Rev., published in the collection “The Essentials” (2015)). “One of the hallmarks of a great manager is the ability to identify the right person for the right job and to train employees to succeed at the jobs they are given.” Id. This habit is lacking, according to Christensen and Overdorf.

Solving these problems is crucial and difficult. They reflect the strengths and weaknesses of the enterprise as a whole, as well as speed bumps to surmount while solving existing and new challenges. Different companies are well known for certain competencies – for example, Apple’s supply chain management and BMW’s sound engineering. Without a core competency–and, one would hope, a comparative advantage–an enterprise cannot compete effectively. Yet we can safely guarantee that even the most sophisticated private and government enterprises will be at a serious disadvantage in at least one area (if not many) vis-a-vis their competition. Overcoming that deficit requires a platform that brings expertise to the enterprise.

While Florence’s Wool Merchant’s Guild understood the power of contests as early as 15th century, today’s enterprises have to a large extent left untapped the world’s greatest business resource – the ability to go beyond one’s corporate walls and limitations to tap into world-class expertise in Budapest, Kyoto, and San Francisco, all from one’s office in Kansas City. Traditional business parlance speaks of silos in terms of the inability of legacy systems to communicate or a corporate culture that doesn’t foster sharing within departments. That definition is still on point. However, it must be expanded to reflect the reality of how too many organizations as a whole work today. A Blind Enterprise (“ABE”) may or may not experience internal silos. That’s not our concern here. An ABE is blind to the talent of global expertise outside its corporate borders waiting to be tapped. It is blind to an open platform-based strategy that relies on those external and unaffiliated actors within the platform to solve a particular problem with greater high-value results than could an organization that relied solely on internal dedicated resources.

An ABE discounts Bill Joy’s wisdom. It believes that by some miracle, it has the world’s best talent, collectively, inside its four walls. This will never be true.

An ABE doesn’t understand the extreme value outcomes that can be obtained by granularizing / atomizing its most difficult corporate challenges via an open platform that is the basis of and has harnessed the expertise that ABE needs. This is a tenet every ABE must understand. A subject matter expert is more likely to compete in bite-sized competitions that (s)he can win rather than spread thin and lose all comparative advantage. Had HMS deemed acceptable the results produced by a dedicated full-time engineering resource over the course of one year, it unknowingly would have left on the table the 98% reduction in a key element of genomics with only $6,000 in contest money won by expert talent. This is a profound example, but hardly an unusual one. ABEs also ignore the power of the cloud computing, which provides scalability and security without geographic restrictions on global talent. The cloud renders irrelevant worldwide distribution of experts. Distance collapses.

Bower and Christensen write that “[o]ne of the most consistent patterns in business is the failure of leading companies to stay at the top of their industries when technologies or markets change.” Joseph L. Bower & Clayton Christensen, Disruptive Technologies: Catching The Wave (Harv. Bus. Rev. 1995). The authors list several F-500 and F-1000 companies as examples. They add: “The research shows that most well-managed, established companies are consistently ahead of their industries in developing and commercializing new technologies—from incremental improvements to radically new approaches—as long as these technologies address the next generation performance needs of their customer.” The first customer is your own enterprise. The benefits of the advanced solutions to your problems delivered by your experts should then inure to your own customers. The lesson: Listen closely to your need for global expertise so that you can stay ahead of a quickly shifting technology curve.

While Bower and Christensen are certainly correct, when their article was published in 1995, there was neither cloud computing nor platform-based global expertise. The Internet was only in its infancy as a commercial tool with search engines. Finding widely distributed talent was beyond the capability of anyone but a government entity (e.g., The Manhattan Project) or a rare think tank such as Bell Labs, which even today still falls under the shadow of Joy’s Law. (Ironically, Bell Labs offered Bill Joy a job in the 1970s. He respectfully turned it down and subsequently co-founded Sun Microsystems.)

Why must Joy’s Law cast any shadow at all?

If anything, Bill Joy and Florence’s 15th century Wool Merchant Guild laid the groundwork for modern enterprises such as DARPA, NASA, Harvard University, Eli Lilly, eBay, and countless others to avail themselves of global expertise platforms and realize extreme value solutions to their most serious problems. Although there is a highly advanced and tested methodology to this process, it will never be one-size-fits-all. Each enterprise and its pain points are too complex. And enterprises often need help defining precisely what they need from a contest, which the platform model can help address.


It is not a stretch to posit that silos will always exist within an enterprise. Businesses have spent billions of dollars to address this issue, often with little success. Yet that is small fry. Imagine an entire enterprise as a single stovepipe. It can only use its own resources. No one can climb out or in.

New forces such as cloud computing and open global expertise platforms are tackling paradigm-shifting questions (e.g., HMS). Enterprises that don’t move from their enterprise-wide (all consuming) silo will remain there, both literally and in terms of innovation. The alternative is to work with an open platform-based community of global experts to solve your most pressing problems and often some you didn’t know you had but for the process itself.

This article was written by Ben Kerschberg from Forbes and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.

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