For human resources (HR) practitioners, crowdsourcing — the use of technology and social networking to draw resources, services, content or ideas from a large number of people — has broadened talent pools, given employees a voice on topics from benefit options to company culture, opened avenues for internal collaboration and content sharing, and enhanced performance feedback and employee recognition systems.

From cybersecurity “hackathons” to new potato chip flavors, crowdsourcing is rapidly growing in popularity (along with its monetary cousin, crowdfunding), and it’s no wonder. With a just few clicks, thousands of responses can flood your screen faster than you can make a coffee run.

Despite diverse applications, crowdsourcing remains largely untapped within talent development, even as the digital natives (Generation Z) enter the workforce. According to a 2018 Robert Half survey, more than 90% of Gen Zers rank development and advancement opportunities as their top reason for selecting an employer. Crowdsourcing is an effective way to meet their needs, as well as the needs of their predecessors, by merging talent development with technology and social connectedness.

Wherever your organization is on its digital journey, there are ways to include crowdsourcing in your development toolkit — whether it’s enabling employees to generate development ideas, increasing post-learning application and retention, or providing more development opportunities overall.

Generating Development Ideas

Employees’ perspectives on their development are often limited to a narrow, promotion-focused or classroom setting view. Crowdsourcing can broaden their thinking, expand their network of supporters and encourage self-directed learning:

  • Crowdsource, then craft: Discussing ideas with only one or two people, such as a manager or mentor, may not help your employees explore new possibilities for development. Encourage employees to use virtual methods to glean ideas from a broader, more diverse population before settling on a development action plan by:
    • Writing a post on their personal blog.
    • Posting goals on their social media platform(s) of choice and asking for input.
    • Starting a thread in special interest or professional associations’ LinkedIn or Facebook groups.
    • Sharing progress with their network and asking for additional suggestions based on that progress and updated development goals.
  • Repurpose feedback and recognition platforms: Many organizations encourage employees and managers to solicit performance feedback and recognition from multiple sources. However, soliciting thoughts on development isn’t common practice. Explore ways to adapt your organization’s existing performance review platform for seeking development ideas as well. Simple programming shifts could open a completely new, yet functionally familiar, platform for gaining greater help and support for individual development.

Increasing Application and Retention

At the conclusion of training courses, facilitators typically ask participants to consider takeaways they’ll apply upon returning to the office. Instead, facilitators may find it helpful to crowdsource options for retaining and applying the learning objectives:

  • Communities of practice: Communities of practice (CoPs) are one of the more enduring forms of collective learning in organizations. However, many of these communities suffer from inactivity on their dedicated company platforms. Facilitators can breathe new life into these potentially valuable resources by encouraging training participants to share or seek suggestions on applying learning. They’ll also benefit from seeing what previous participants wrote and gleaning ideas from past posts. If they have internet access while in the classroom, encourage them to spend a few minutes exploring the CoP before leaving the training event.
  • Post-event forums: Even if a learning event or development program doesn’t have a related community of practice, it’s fairly simple to set up an online forum for employees who recently participated in the learning event. Cohorts can use the forum to post ideas, results and insights, and — even if they stop using the forum after a while — their comments will prove valuable to future participants.
  • “Re-boarding”: Within new hires’ first 90 days, they’re ripe with lessons learned during their transition from wide-eyed newbie to contributing employee. Who better to ask about the actions and interactions that helped them acclimate to their roles? Harvest these ideas by creating a forum where they can share insights. As they approach their 90-day milestone (or any interval of your choosing), send them an email asking them to post thoughts in the space; then, share it with future onboarding classes to support their on-the-job orientation.

Studies show that anywhere from 20% to 30% of new hires quit — or consider quitting — within their first 90 days. While the reasons vary, creating a sense of community early on by sharing initial development experiences can reduce some of the stress associated with entering a new role and organization.

Providing More Opportunities

In its 2019 talent trends research, HR consulting firm Randstad found that nearly 59% of employees want more transparency about career opportunities at their company. Since broad communication is central to any crowdsourcing effort, you can use it to provide and promote career opportunities.

  • “Brand” open roles and departments: Your external brand is important in making your organization an employer of choice, and internal branding is just as powerful. Rather than simply posting open roles in your applicant tracking system, encourage employees to broadcast the roles to their internal and external networks, along with their thoughts on why their department is an ideal place to work.
  • Encourage participation in open challenges: Employees can hone technical skills such as programming and coding, as well as soft skills like creative problem-solving and communications, through hackathons, innovation challenges and other crowdsourced opportunities available online. Sites such as regularly cater to a range of interests and skills through a wide variety of challenges, many of which include sizeable monetary prizes.
  • Create challenges of your own: Use internal platforms to issue a business or innovation challenge to employees, or work with an external firm to create more formal challenges using their secure platforms. Should you choose to offer prize money or corporate swag, be sure to highlight the skills and competencies the challenge will hone so employees link it to their development.

From a competition for the White House’s architectural design in the 1790s and Toyota’s logo contest in 1936 to the launch of Wikipedia in 2001, crowdsourcing was a phenomenon long before Wired magazine officially coined the term in 2006. As technology continues to evolve, it’s likely to become even more ubiquitous in business. If your talent development efforts haven’t kept pace, take advantage of these opportunities to follow the crowd.