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Models of Leadership in a Crowdsourcing/Collaborative Environment.

This is the second of mini-series of three blog entries. In the first blog entry, I described Gov 2.0 as a world of “permeable boundaries”, characterized by crowdsourcing and collaboration, and described the challenges that created for leadership. In this blog entry I’ll look at some model organizations that are already working (and very effectively) in that sort of environment and what they might have to teach us. In the final instalment, I’ll try to apply those lessons to government.

(As a side and obligatory note: these opinions are my own and not those of my employer. Although I wouldn’t be offended if my employer starts to think along these lines.)

Before we go into specific examples of effective leadership in a crowdsourcing/collaborative environment, I’d like to consider what type of organization we should be looking at. We can look to organizations where:
* There are a small group of paid employees and a large group volunteers
* Employees and volunteers are working together toward a common goal set by the organization’s leadership

We tend to find this situation in charities, non-profits and political campaigns. If we look at organizations in those categories that are performing exceptionally well, perhaps we can learn some lessons that will serve us as we move to Gov 2.0. Perhaps coincidentally, within the last week or so I attended talks on two such organizations.

The Mozilla Foundation
The Mozilla Foundation is a non-profit organization that sponsors the Mozilla project and devotes its resources to promoting openness, innovation and opportunity on the Internet. The Mozilla project creates open source software. Their most famous product is the Firefox web browser. To give an idea of the success of Firefox, when Firefox 1.0 was launched, there were 10 million downloads in the first month. When Firefox 2.0 was launched, there were 10 million downloads within 10 days. With 60 million daily users, Firefox enjoys a market share of over 20%. And it accomplished this in ten years, while competing with the largest, wealthiest and most competitive software company in the world.

How did it do that? An effective mix of paid staff, contractors and volunteers. A lot of work is done by volunteers. Looking at the number of patches submitted over the first four months of this year, for example, 50-60% were submitted by volunteers (generally closer to 60%). And it is not just in code development that Mozilla depends upon (or benefits from) volunteers. When Firefox launched, thousands of volunteers raised $200,000 to buy a two-page advertisement spread in the New York Times. Clearly the Mozilla leadership has found a way to effectively harness the efforts of a large group, external to the organization, toward a common goal. (You can view the talk I attended yourselves.)

The Obama Campaign
The Obama Presidential Campaign was also a model of how to leverage volunteers. Whatever your views of Obama’s personal character or policies, he clearly led an effective campaign. The Obama campaign raised $639 million (as compared to the $360 million raised by the McCain campaign), much of it in the form of small donations. It dominated online: about five times the number of friends on social networking sites Facebook and MySpace, nine times as many views of the YouTube videos they uploaded and over 28 times as many Twitter followers, for example. But its success wasn’t only online. There were 35,000 volunteer groups and 200,000 offline events. In the four days before the election volunteers made 3 million calls. In the weekend before the election volunteers knocked on 1 million doors in Pennsylvania alone!

However, it is not enough to mobilize an army of volunteers like that. You have to keep them “on message” and aligned with the organization’s goals and beliefs. Especially in a situation where volunteers are freely using your materials, and it is very difficult to distinguish volunteer activities from “official campaign” activities, it is critical to keep them aligned to avoid brand dilution and mixed messages. (You can view the talk I attended yourselves.)

Lessons we can learn
These two examples have a lot in common, in terms of how the organizations are/were run:
* Clear and consistent expression of a common vision that inspires and attracts a large community of participants. For Mozilla that vision is of a community-produced open source alternative. For Obama the vision is: Hope. Change. Action.
* Core team of paid staff to provide central coordination and take on tasks that volunteers are unable/unwilling to do.Both the Mozilla Foundation and the Obama Campaign employ paid staff to coordinate the efforts of volunteers. In both cases the paid staff is a small core mobilizing a large volunteer team.
* Volunteers are provided with direction and possibly training and tools. Mozilla provides extensive online documentation supporting developers, with a clear delineation of the various roles and responsibilities. They also provide a toolset (for example “Bugzilla, the tool the developed for tracking bugs). The Obama campaign also provided training to volunteers, with increasing training opportunities as their involvement grew. Sophisticated tools were provided through the MyBarackObama.com social networking site. Other innovative tools were also provided, such as the iPhone application, which acted like a portable campaign office.
* Volunteers are empowered to act creatively and to use the organization’s intellectual property freely, as long as it is consistent with the overall vision. Mozilla makes its source code freely available to volunteers and invites them to work with it. On the marketing side, they encourage the participation of volunteers as well. For the Obama campaign, many of the most effective promotional materials: posters, viral videos, even carved pumpkins, were created by supporters who had no connection whatsoever with the campaign organization.

What do you think? Are these fair examples? Can you think of other examples … or other lessons learned?

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Profile Photo Mark Danielson

Clear and consistent expression of a common vision that inspires and attracts a large community of participants.

The point itself. That shared vision, and the possibility of a better future, is the motivator to action. I’m enjoying the series. Can’t wait for 3. As I cruise around in Mozilla Firefox.

Profile Photo Adriel Hampton

Fantastic series, David! I’m reading “The Future of Work” from Harvard Press (on recommendation of a GovLooper!), which has a lot of corporate examples from earlier this decade and from the 90s.

Profile Photo David Tallan

Of course, Part 3 was the hardest part. They are really first thoughts, based on a week or two of thinking. I couldn’t wait to get them out there and get some discussion going. (Actually, in a sense I did wait. I wrote all three parts together and then split them up so it wouldn’t be this huge intimidating mass of text.)

Just want to manage expectations a bit.