The New Tool in Your Toolbox is Crowdsourcing

Use crowdsourcing for business problems without compromising proprietary information


In a previous article, we showed how crowdsourcing could be used to help find a resource like a freelance blogger.  Companies sometimes need a different kind of resource - something more specialized or more complicated. In this article, we will see how crowdsourcing can be used as a tool along-side existing processes to help address a more complicated need.


In recent years, companies around the world have become environmentally aware - using processes and starting materials that are sustainable, renewable, and recyclable.  Sometimes this means identifying a renewably sourced raw material that can be dropped into an existing manufacturing process to produce product. If you wanted to switch to such a new raw material and didn’t want to invest in new manufacturing equipment, how would you proceed?  You have internal resources that can be allocated to help source materials for testing and/or to help develop these new materials in-house. But the timeline for these types of projects can be quite long, they take away bandwidth from other internal activities, and your competitors probably use many of the same suppliers.  Crowdsourcing can help shorten the path to a solution.


Enabling the Crowd


At first glance, this search for a new, renewably sourced, raw material may not seem like a good thing to crowdsource.  Your manufacturing process is your company’s intellectual property, and using the power of the crowd could allow proprietary information to leak to competitors.  You have an excellent procurement team and a top-notch R&D group. But you are in control of the project parameters and manage what you share publicly vs privately, and the types of groups that respond are likely to be different from those familiar to your procurement team.  A crowdsourcing project to identify this new renewably sourced material could look like this:


  1. Open call - Think of this as a Request for Proposal, where you set clear specifications for the project you want to be accomplished. In this example, you would specify the characteristics of your desired raw material, including price, anticipated annual demand, technical performance criteria, why it is considered renewably sourced, and with what type of manufacturing equipment it should be compatible.  You would not detail the end use, the specific equipment with which it would be used, or any other revealing information.

  2. Response - Anyone who meets your open call criteria could submit a response for your review. In this case, you might ask for a brief abstract that discusses why/how it is considered renewably sourced, its unit cost, a technical specifications sheet, and images or a video of the material in use in some exemplar equipment.

  3. Shortlist - After reviewing all your options, you would narrow down your candidates to a shortlist. You would then invite the most compelling respondents to sign a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) with your company, share a little more detailed information about how the raw material would be used, and ask them to provide samples of their raw materials.  Since they would be providing material for your internal groups to evaluate, you could offer a nominal fee. 

Final selection - Your internal development group could test and evaluate the different materials in their facilities and select the best fit for you and your company.  The winner would then receive a prize and potentially a contract to supply your company or an agreement to perform joint development of the material.

The Crowdsourcing Process

Ideally, this process would be used in addition to, not instead of your existing processes, so that it augments your resources rather than replacing them.  While your procurement group has well-established relationships with all your known vendors, this type of crowdsourcing project is likely to bring in responses from new groups, new vendors, and - depending on the type of crowd you choose to build - it could even bring in responses for new materials that are just leaving the development stage.  You may discover a new material with improved properties that springboards you toward your next-generation product, or you may find several new development groups with whom you want to collaborate to help generate such a material.

Using the Crowd Benefits Everyone

In this example, we show how a problem with a more complicated set of circumstances can still be crowdsourced.  Regardless of your constraints, there is almost always a way to create a crowdsourcing project that will produce meaningful results.  Everyone benefits from these types of interactions.  

For you, the project owner:

  • The exercise of narrowly defining your needs, necessary performance criteria, and what is truly proprietary can help clarify the problem itself and provide insight into other adjacent issues.

For your company:

  • By crowdsourcing with an augmentation instead of a replacement mindset, your company resources have extra bandwidth to pursue issues that can’t be outsourced.

  • All the respondents on your shortlist are interesting to you in one way or another, and they become part of your larger network that you may use in future efforts.

  • Your company may discover the next big thing as a result of the project.

For the participants:

  • All the shortlisted respondents have an opportunity to demonstrate their materials and to talk with your company.

  • The winner has the potential for continued business with your company.


Crowdsourcing isn’t the right tool for every problem.  Sometimes, it is just one of several tools brought to bear.  Even when used in conjunction with more traditional approaches, it can be an important part of the solution.  To learn more and to see examples of other types of problems that can be crowdsourced, visit our Resources page at  If you have specific questions and would like to speak with an expert — email us at

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Eloise Young

Crowdsourcing Specialist

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