Mzinga Knows Harnessing the Wisdom of Crowds Takes Wisdom—and Work

12/10/07Follow @wroush

“Crowdsourcing.”

It’s often discussed in the business world as if it were a cheap and easy way to get groups of online volunteers to take over once-costly functions such as customer support. But the folks at Mzinga, in Burlington, MA, understand that the story is a bit more complicated. For one thing, creating and managing online communities takes real work, which makes it decidedly not cheap—if you want Mzinga to handle it for your company, it will cost you about $15,000 a month.

“There is a ton to gain out of community, but it can get messy quickly if you don’t know what you’re doing,” says Aaron Strout, vice president of new media at Mzinga, which takes its name from the Swahili word for “beehive.” Indeed, just as you wouldn’t reach into a beehive without protective gloves, Strout and his colleagues argue that effectively outsourcing your work to the crowd requires (a bit paradoxically) professional help.

Mzinga was formed last month from the merger of community management company Shared Insights and knowledge management company Knowledge Planet, with a new leadership team imported from yet a third company, Intranets.com. The company offers three types of services: creating consumer communities where companies can engage with their customers online (and encourage them to engage with each other); managing workplace communities where employees can record and share their expertise; and “learning management systems” for online employee training.

But it’s the first product, customer communities, that has been getting most of the press attention since the company’s launch—perhaps because Mzinga has been promoting it through the publication of what it calls “the first crowdsourced book,” We Are Smarter Than Me.

The theme of the book, as the title implies, is that groups of people working together can come up with better solutions than individuals. That’s a questionable idea, obviously—could a crowd have come up with the Mona Lisa or Newton’s calculus?—but it’s true at least in the sense that modern technology makes it easier to aggregate perspectives or content from many people in one place. (We wouldn’t have YouTube without the Web.)

We Are Smarter Than MeBut We Are Smarter Than Me is something of a case study in the labor-intensive nature of working with communities. Wharton School of Business vice dean Jon Spector and Barry Libert, then CEO of Shared Insights (and now co-CEO of Mzinga, with Intranets.com’s Rick Faulk), launched the project in November 2006 as an attempt to see whether the Wikipedia model could be applied to writing a book. But as the two have described in interviews, contributors didn’t comply with their tidy initial concept of growing a book, chapter by chapter, through wiki-based collaborative editing of the seed material they developed with MIT Sloan School professor Thomas Malone. Libert, Spector, and editorial assistants had to assemble the book themselves by sorting through and rewriting 1600 wiki posts, more than 700 discussion forum posts, and related blog posts. “In the end, Barry, Jon, and their editorial assistants organized and polished all of the members’ contributions to produce the final draft…in the conventional way,” Mzinga’s website explains.

Still, the book is a valuable marketing tools for Mzinga, says Strout. “The book talks about communities that are pursuing the best practices in the world of online community management, big and small,” Strout says. “It puts us in a thought leadership position, where we really start to set the standards.” And best practices are what Mzinga says it’s all about; Strout says the company prides itself on helping customers deal with daily challenges, from perfecting a community site’s user interface to moderating unruly discussion forums.

“We are not just throwing a service or a tool at [customers] but really trying to address their problems in a holistic manner,” says Strout. Which can take a whole lot of wisdom, and work.

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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