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Crowd smarts for enterprise: Narinder Singh talks Topcoder

Phil Wainewright Profile picture for user pwainewright February 5, 2014
How enterprises can save costs and achieve more by crowdsourcing innovation in fields such as data science, mobile development and cloud

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Eight years after co-founding Appirio to bring cloud applications to the enterprise, Narinder Singh is driven by a new cause that he believes will have an equally dramatic impact on enterprise IT: crowdsourced community development.

"At its extreme, crowd is more disruptive to services than cloud. It's fundamentally more disruptive to the SI model," he told me during a visit to London last week.

Appirio's initial journey as a cloud integrator started out working with early adopters. Now Singh believes that phase is ending as cloud becomes established in the enterprise mainstream:

"It's a classic information asymmetry issue. A lot of the intellectual underpinnings for cloud were clear eight years ago. But it took time to get it known, educated, operationalized ...

"To me cloud is certainly past the early adopter phase now. I don't think I have to convince people any more."

Now a leading cloud integrator backed by a total of $80 million in venture funding, Appirio played its part in that process of building awareness, developing implementation processes, educating the market and refining the tools and techniques, says Singh. Now the journey starts over with crowd:

"The analogy to cloud is a really powerful one and really appropriate. Appirio helped you through this with cloud and we're going to do the same thing with crowd ...

"Being able to help the world with another change like this that's just as dramatic is really exciting.

"Take a couple of matches, some fuel —  and you've got an opportunity to create a positive explosion for enterprise."

Eat your own dogfood

When I first met Singh in May 2007, I was impressed by Appirio's eat-your-own-dogfood approach, running its entire business in the cloud. The company has taken a similar trajectory with crowdsourced development, having launched its own community platform three years ago to tap into crowdsourced development for its own client projects.

Now that initiative has been folded into a much larger play, with Singh at the helm, after the acquisition last September of Topcoder, a ten-year-old crowdsourced development community that's a leading examplar of the model. Appirio's former CloudSpokes platform has been absorbed into Topcoder, which last month unveiled a refreshed, mobile-friendly look-and-feel for its 600,000-strong global community.

The Topcoder community has strengths in data science, in mobile and cloud development and in software algorithms. Projects are submitted as contests in which developers compete to win a cash prize for the most successful submission. They range from DNA sequencing problems to web development — there's even a Topcoder developed app awaiting clearance for use by NASA astronauts on the International Space Station.

But many enterprises still hold back from making use of platforms like Topcoder because of worries over confidentiality, trustworthiness and a lack of skills in managing crowdsourced projects. Singh believes such fears are misplaced and is on a mission to show enterprises how they can benefit from using crowdsourcing.

On confidentiality, he points out that the advent of standardized cloud and mobile platforms have made it much easier to parcel out projects without having to disclose details of proprietary code.

Community power

Narinder Singh

His key message is that crowdsourcing is really about applying the lessons of open source development to the enterprise, tapping the collaborative power of a global community to achieve a better result than a single organization is capable of — indeed, he prefers the term community over crowd:

"What we haven't done in the enterprise is tap into the way that open source gets produced.

"When I say crowdsourced, what we're actually driving towards is community driven development ...

"What goes through a community process is far stronger than what goes through an individual company."

This message is supported by academic research — many researchers tap into Topcoder as a living laboratory where they can monitor and analyze the community process in action, to the extent that one describes it as "the fruit flies of innovation."

In an article last year in Harvard Business Review, Kevin Boudreau, assistant professor of strategy and entrepreneurship at London Business School explained why crowdsourcing is able to produce better results for certain problems:

... a well-functioning crowd is loose and decentralized. It exposes a problem to widely diverse individuals with varied skills, experience, and perspectives. And it can operate at a scale that exceeds even that of the biggest and most complex global corporation, bringing in many more individuals to focus on a given challenge.

In certain situations, that means we can solve problems more efficiently.

Singh cites data science as a field that benefits especially strongly from this effect: a problem put out to Topcoder may be looked at by a thousand or more people, each with their own unique perspective.

Digital newcomers

Helping enterprises understand how to harness that potential is Appirio's — and Singh's — next mission:

"When you put a unit of work out you will get a better outcome. The challenge is how you string together the units of work. The atomization and recombination of work is fundamental to making this work."

Appirio faces competition from familiar rivals in that quest. Accenture's Technology Vision 2014 report last week named crowdsourcing as one of six top trends shaping technology. Singh said he welcomed the validation as evidence that crowdsourcing may already be better established than cloud was when Appirio first launched:

"The fact that Accenture is saying crowd is a major trend is probably a proof point that we're past the early stage. The intellectual model has been established; now it's just the execution model."

The advent of crowdsourcing is one of a number of changes impacting the traditional global systems integrator (GSI) model, he added — a move by their traditional customers away from big-ticket projects being another.

"The role of them doing the soup-to-nuts, mainframe-scale version of a project should go away.

"It's not that the GSIs are going away. Its just that it'll become clear there are projects that are better for them than others."

Crowdsourcing is a particular threat because it removes much of the transaction cost of acquiring certain types of resource, he added. Thus it undermines the GSI business model in the same way as other industries have been attacked by digital newcomers:

"If all the friction all of a sudden of getting someone to work on a problem in your organization approaches zero, what's the purpose of a services firm in that process?

"Look at [chauffered car network] Uber and [room rental network] Airbnb, they've reduced the friction by using technology and process. Because of technology, the taxi company, the hotel chain has a much different value proposition. Coordination costs have dropped dramatically because of cloud and mobile.

"All of a sudden I don't need to own those assets to deliver that service."

The rise of crowdsourcing and community platforms like Topcoder is one more real-world proof-point of the theory of frictionless enterprise and adds fuel to the prediction of a seven-year famine in IT services we reported last year. It may seem like a small trend for now, but if, as Singh suggests, it's going to have even more impact on the IT services industry than cloud has, then it's certainly a trend to watch closely.

Meanwhile, he's eager to help make it happen:

"That's a big part of why we're excited. We want to make that future become bigger sooner. "

Image credit: Business silhouettes © yanlev -; Narinder Singh picture couresty of Appirio

Article updated 7th February to clarify current status of NASA app.

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