Finding Answers Using Crowdsourcing #KMWorld

Ian Coyne is Sector Knowledge Manager, Russell Reynolds Associates. Using the experience of KPMG as they tried to answer the “Brave Banana” problem, he shares insights and tips on how to use crowdsourcing to share knowledge.

[These are my notes from the KMWorld 2012 Conference. Since I’m publishing them as soon as possible after the end of a session, they may contain the occasional typographical or grammatical error. Please excuse those. To the extent I’ve made any editorial comments, I’ve shown those in brackets.]


  • The Brave Banana Problem. “Late one night, a KPMG partner in the U.K. sent an email to 600 people asking for solutions to what he thought was an unsolvable problem: How could you peel a thousand bananas at the same time?” They reason he was asking was that a client was a maker of banana ice cream, but didn’t have a reliable and affordable means of getting peeled bananas to make that ice cream. Through this crowdsourcing effort they found at least one credible answer that was worth testing. (For those of you who are curious, the respondent had studied food sciences in university and proposed putting a banana in vacuum, which would cause the skin to split and eject the peeled banana. The idea didn’t ultimately work, but it definitely impressed the client.)
  • Lessons Learned. (1) Learning from failure: asking people about general work topics didn’t work that well. Equally, asking them about purely personal topics in a vacuum didn’t work either. What did work was asking a question for the purpose of serving a client. Once the crowd understood the reason for the question they were willing to respond for the sake of the client.(2) People do something if they are asked by their friends and peers. They are less likely to act if requested by a remote senior leader. (3) Make it easy. Ask questions to which there is no wrong answer. All that is required is to have an opinion that you are willing to share. (4) Don’t offer financial rewards — it encourages the wrong kind of behavior. (5) Seek forgiveness not permission. This is particularly important if you’re attempting something new for your organization. (6) Be brave. Doing simple stuff is less likely to have a transformative effect on your organization.
  • Methods for Tapping the Wisdom of Crowds. To begin with, don’t use corporate speak. Use every day language, not formal corporate messaging. In addition, don’t send an organization-wide request since that will feel a bit more like a corporate edict. Start by sending emails to a target group and see what kind of response you receive. Another method is to set up a simple discussion board (this can be done in SharePoint) and invite people by email to participate.
  • Don’t Expect the Ultimate Answer. In the Brave Banana example, they were hoping for the ultimate answer, but found that a credible answer was sufficient to impress the client. For most crowdsourcing exercises, focus on gathering as many answers as possible. Even if one of the ideas isn’t the perfect answer, it may point the way to the right answer. Equally, don’t edit or cull the responses — you don’t always know what will resonate with the client. Therefore, give the client ever single answer received. To make a little order out of the chaos of seemingly random answers, try grouping all the responses and then present the major themes to the client (supported by copies of all the answers).
  • Where do you draw the line between crowdsourcing and focus groups?. When you need responses from a specific demographic, it makes sense to organize a focus group. (You can do this by sending the email to a limited group of people.) However, if you want the widest range of responses, regardless of source, then make it wide open and try crowdsourcing.