I was watching a presentation about business intelligence by one of my fellow faculty members the other day, and as one of his examples for the crowd of undergrads, he cited last year's developer contest conducted by Netflix to build a better algorithm for their users' movie preferences.
The contest, long over, awarded US$1 million to the team that could "substantially improve the accuracy of predictions about how much someone is going to enjoy a movie based on their movie preferences."
This algorithm, my colleague went on to explain, was a cool example of BI. But it was the crowd-sourcing aspect of this contest that tickled my brain. This is likely because last year I was involved in a similar contest held by Cisco to build better apps for their Application Extention Platform.
It should be noted that I am well aware that neither Netflix or Cisco ever intimated that these were "communities," nor were the results ever going to be open source. These were contests--bounties paid to developers and experts to accomplish serious challanges and improve each company's bottom line.
The reason why the idea of these contests started the gears in my head turning was because sometimes it seems as if open source or open source-sympathetic companies seem to have this notion that communities (in the open source definition of the term) are a tool to get something done. Whether it's building an app, improving some software, or just trying to establish product loyalty, communities can be seen as just a means to an end.
Communities, in this context, are no different from the crowdsourcing gained by contests. Instead of prizes, some companies building communities are just investing time and effort in community building instead of money straight into a contest purse.
To be fair, this is an easy mistake to make. Community and business aren't exactly a great fit, since communities are typically organic and businesses are usually rigid and heirarchical (though exceptions exist on both sides). This also gets into the old "should a Community Manager work for the marketing or engineering department?" argument.
Right now, the trend seems to be running communities through a marketing lens, which can lead to treating community as "resource" and nothing else. It's tricky, because a strong community is a great resource, but that's not all it has to be.
Companies need to recognize that while communities can work for them, companies should be ready to work for communities, and respond to individual community members' needs with the same levels of priority that might be assigned to internal staff.
It's a bumpy ride, and it can be painful for each side to adjust. But the adjustment needs to be made, because community is not crowdsourcing.