In an economic downturn, mass layoffs like those just announced by Intuit, which intends to slice 7 percent of its workforce in a reorganization, aren't too surprising.
But there is a somewhat surprising element to the Intuit announcement, highlighted earlier this week by ZDNet's Tom Foremski. During a presentation at Fortune magazine's Brainstorm conference, Intuit CEO Brad Smith spoke about the company's efforts to tap into the power of the Internet to better serve customers. In the video included with Foremski's post, Smith mentions that as part of that effort, the company has recognized that in many cases, customers can deliver higher value to other customers than Intuit employees can. He says:
... Are we paying employees today to do the work that our customers would volunteer to do, and actually do better than us?
He notes that after Intuit put a Turbo Tax Live Community feature into its popular Turbo Tax software, 40 percent of customers' questions were answered by other customers, with a higher degree of accuracy than ever before, and at no added cost to Intuit.
I remembered mentioning Intuit when I wrote about companies using social networking for business advantage. I tracked down the post from September of 2006 and found a similar reference to what Smith calls "innovation in an age of customer empowerment." It said that some 70 percent of inquiries on Intuit's Quicken forum were being answered by customers rather than Intuit staffers. It also mentioned Intuit planned to beef up the forums with blogging and podcasting tools.
So will crowdsourcing cost some folks their jobs, as Foremski implies? It's possible, though not all that likely in the near term. I suspect only a tiny portion -- if any -- of the 575 jobs Intuit plans to cut are related in any way to its crowdsourcing efforts.
Still, companies are moving toward using more outsiders to accomplish all kinds of tasks, from Facebook's enlistment of users to translate its visible framework into two dozen languages to Microsoft's offering development tools to gamers in hopes some of them will create new games for the Xbox. To its credit, Microsoft does plan to share some revenue with game creators, reports ZDNet.
If crowdsourcing continues to gain in popularity, might there be a parallel with self-service technologies? After all, most of us have probably contributed to job losses by performing tasks such as booking our own travel online, scanning our own purchases at retail stores, or heck, pumping our own gas. These were all tasks once more commonly performed by third parties, until many of us decided it was quicker, easier and more convenient to do them ourselves.