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Crowdsourcing Application Development

Back in January I talked with Eric Knipp, who manages Gartner's Application Platform Strategies research team, about some of the opportunities and challenges he saw on the horizon for application developers. During that conversation, he mentioned an intriguing idea that he was exploring: That crowdsourcing could be much more useful to enterprise app dev organizations than most people currently recognize.

That exploration is complete and Knipp's conclusions and recommendations are laid out in a new Gartner white paper, aptly entitled "Use Crowdsourcing as a Force Multiplier in Application Development."

Gartner defines crowdsourcing as "the processes of sourcing a task or challenge to a broad, distributed set of contributors using the Web and social collaboration techniques." Think Netflix Prize or XPrize, or on smaller-scope piecework, Amazon or Mechanical Turk. As Knipp puts it, it is a call for a custom application solution from an external developer community, the members of which expect to earn financial or reputational awards.

The competitive aspect is somewhat similar to open source, which Knipp calls "an important ancestor" to crowdsourcing, and communities do develop around crowdsourcing environments, but the dynamic is dramatically different. Where open source attracts committers, crowdsourcing attracts competitors.

"Most of the time, when you're working on open source, it's something that you want to use personally," Knipp told me. "I'm contributing to Docker, say, because I use it and I found a bug that I want fixed, or there's a feature I want to add to make it better for me and everyone else who uses it. But on the crowdsourcing side, for the most part, this thing that you're building is for a specific purpose and the ownership of the code goes to the sponsor. You're trying to win that contest, get that prize, get invited into private contests, and maybe even get a job. These are two very different sets of motivations, even though both have a community aspect."

Applying crowdsourcing to enterprise application development is about harnessing parts of the open-source model -- the competitive spirit, the application of multiple solutions to a problem -- and folding them into a business model that helps the enterprise do meaningful work, Knipp explained.

It also opens up a new leadership role for application architects as coordinators of "the activities of cutting-edge developers in a free market for technical talent," Knipp said. This model allows app architects "to apply the cloud operating model (scalable and elastic, shared, service-based, metered and delivered using Internet technologies) to the development and delivery of custom software."

Why turn to external sources for internal innovation? Because of the pressure on app dev organizations to leverage a broader set of experience and domain expertise than they have in-house to compete in a world sent into warp-speed competition by cloud, mobile and social trends.

Small or midsize businesses (SMBs) and startups have found successes with mobile and modern Web applications through crowdsourcing, Knipp said. But he insists that larger enterprises can also take advantage of this model. One secret of the SMBs success: applying crowdsourcing to greenfield application development, rather than extending or modernizing existing systems. Also, they tend to focus on the design, coding, and testing disciplines in the software development life cycle (SDLC).

Once the decision to crowdsource is made, Knipp said, the next most important choice facing an organization is which platform to use. The crowdsourcing process is mediated by platforms that connect the sponsoring companies with the competitors, and picking the right one is critical. Currently, most of the platform providers specialize in one phase of the SDLC. DesignCrowd, crowdSpring, and 99designs, for example, focus on the design phase, while uTest, Passbrains, and BugFinders focus on validating code and cross-platform functionality. Only one provider, TopCoder, offers a soup-to-nuts crowdsourcing platform. Knipp expects that situation to change as more enterprises recognize the value of crowdsourcing.

Knipp has a lot more to say on this subject in this must-read white paper. Highly recommended.

Posted by John K. Waters on April 17, 2014