The state of crowdsourcing

In February TBR virtually attended the Global Technology & Business Services Council’s Global Series: Open Talent conference and heard from leaders across the technology and crowdsourcing industries about emerging themes and trends. While it is not a new phenomenon, crowdsourcing is becoming a compelling delivery model in the IT services space as enterprises increasingly embrace remote services during the pandemic and seek out new ways to fill skills gaps, drive cost savings and accelerate engagement turnaround time. Platform-based crowdsourcing companies such as Topcoder and Freelancer.com, which TBR heard from during the conference, are rapidly expanding their communities of technology-oriented freelancers and driving new use cases with large enterprises that would have traditionally gone to IT service vendors. In TBR’s view, vendors that are not embracing this shift stand to lose the most. At the same time, we question whether those that bring this model to market are really positioned to gain much.

Existential threat or just a piece of the puzzle?

Now more than ever, crowdsourcing and open talent models are proving to be significant disruptors in how services are delivered, and technology appears to be an area that can benefit the most from this trend. Prior to the Global Technology & Business Services Council (GT&BSC) event, our understanding was that organizations engaged with the aforementioned crowdsourcing platforms mostly around the ability to tap large pools of talent much faster and cheaper, but largely for low-value, task-oriented services. To our surprise, during the event TBR learned about use cases in which Fortune 500 companies and renowned research institutions turned to “the crowd” for sophisticated software and data services, which led to significant improvements in speed, cost and even quality. For instance, a coalition between several enterprises and academic institutions such as Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) opened up a project to the Topcoder community around the optimization of a DNA sequencing algorithm, with the goal of surpassing what had been regarded as an “impossible” threshold. Dozens of submissions crossed the threshold within 24 hours. At first glance, the use of these platforms for high-value services poses a threat to IT services vendors, but TBR notes some caveats.

White-labeling labor

It is necessary to point out that the majority of IT services vendors’ activities in the crowdsourcing space happened pre-pandemic. For example, Wipro (NYSE: WIT) made a splash in the industry when it acquired Topcoder in 2016. And in the years following this, other vendors such as DXC Technology (NYSE: DXC) and Deloitte pursued partnerships that enabled the vendors to launch crowdsourcing services by tapping into Topcoder’s labor ecosystem. First, this distorts the image of crowdsourcing platforms as competition and instead reflects a more symbiotic relationship. Second, while Wipro might be able to take a small commission on engagements done through Topcoder, it lacks a significant competitive advantage over peers that partner with it or other similar platforms.

Security and trust

Soliciting bids from unknown global technologists presents obvious risks. This model is not suited for workloads involving sensitive data and therefore is not gaining the same traction in industries such as financial services or healthcare, where data security and privacy are top concerns. IT services vendors that cater to this clientele will be much more capable of steering clients away from crowdsourcing services and commanding profitable revenues. Similarly, many firms’ value propositions revolve around the reputation of the company and its quality of services, helping them garner more trust-based relationships. Clients seeking this level of service will largely be uninterested in crowdsourcing. This concern will also put pressure on services providers that partner with crowdsourcing platforms, as well as the platforms themselves, to establish guardrails against potential leaks or security breaches, but it remains no easy task to vet millions of global freelancers.   

Bottom line

These platforms are intended to optimize costs and speed. While IT services vendors likely do not want to miss out on any opportunities to engage with potential clients, partnering with a crowdsourcing provider and delivering the cheapest possible services will limit margin growth. Instead, we see opportunities for vendors to embed this open talent model into their organizations to improve utilization and more efficiently deploy staff. We learned during the GT&BSC event, for example, that Deloitte partnered with Freelancer.com in 2019 to develop an internal marketplace for Deloitte’s employees to join open projects within the firm and integrated the solution into the Freelancer.com ecosystem so Deloitte could extend its pool of external resources if needed.

What the future holds

If anything has stood out during the pandemic, it is that incumbents in every industry must be prepared to quickly pivot and adjust to new and nontraditional ways of doing business. In the IT services space, TBR believes disruptions such as the gig economy and crowdsourcing pose the biggest threat to management consulting firms, where generational and technology shifts are creating instances in which enterprises may opt to collect third-party opinions and advice through these types of platforms instead of via expensive consultancies, which can be as enigmatic as unidentified, crowdsourced respondents. In general, IT services vendors that have established pathways into this type of model will benefit from bringing new logos into account ecosystems, which will provide opportunities downstream to upsell higher-value services. We anticipate crowdsourcing will continue to play a supplementary, but necessary, role in IT services as a way for companies to easily scale services at the expense of security and margins. But much like organizations’ hesitation to fully embrace the cloud for their IT ecosystems, taking a hybrid approach to “the crowd” will likely remain the preferred method for most enterprises to minimize risk while still reaping the benefits of scalability and speed that the crowdsourcing model offers.

TBR’s Professional Services practice will continue to monitor the trends outlined above and provide analysis across our syndicated vendor reports and benchmarks, notably the IT Services Vendor Benchmark and Global Delivery Benchmark. The next iterations of these two products, which synthesize TBR’s in-depth analysis and data across covered vendors, are set to publish in April.

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