Case Study Organizational Design and Strategy Apply Your Skills: Ethical Dilemma Crowdsourcing Last

Case Study

Organizational Design and Strategy

Apply Your Skills: Ethical Dilemma


Last year, when Ai-Lan Nguyen told her friend Greg Barnwell
that Off the Hook Tees, based in Asheville, North Carolina, was going to
experiment with crowdsourcing, he warned her that she wouldn’t like the
results Now, as she was about to walk into a meeting to decide whether to
adopt this new business model, she was afraid her friend had been right

Crowdsourcing uses the Internet to invite
anyone—professionals and amateurs alike—to perform tasks such as product design
that employees usually perform In exchange, contributors receive
recognition—but little or no pay Ai-Lan, as vice president of operations for
Off the Hook, a company specializing in witty T-shirts aimed at young adults,
upheld the values of founder Chris Woodhouse, who, like Ai-Lan, was a graphic
artist Before he sold the company, the founder always insisted that T-shirts
be well designed by top-notch graphic artists to make sure that each screen
print was a work of art Those graphic artists reported to Ai-Lan

Over the past 18 months, Off the Hook’s sales had been
stagnating for the first time in its history The crowdsourcing experiment was
the latest in a series of attempts to jump-start sales growth Last spring, Off
the Hook issued its first open call for T-shirt designs and then posted the
entries on the Web so people could vote for their favorites The top five
vote-getters were handed over to the in-house designers, who tweaked the
submissions until they met the company’s usual quality standards

When CEO Rob Taylor first announced the company’s foray into
crowdsourcing, Ai-Lan found herself reassuring the designers that their
positions were not in jeopardy Now Ai-Lan was all but certain she would have
to go back on her word Not only had the crowdsourced shirts sold well, but Rob
had put a handful of winning designs directly into production, bypassing the
design department altogether Customers didn’t notice the difference

Ai-Lan concluded that Rob was ready to adopt some form of
this Web-based crowdsourcing because it made T-shirt design more responsive to
consumer desires In practical terms, it reduced the uncertainty that
surrounded new designs, and it dramatically lowered costs The people who won
the competitions were delighted with the exposure that it gave them

However, when Ai-Lan looked at the crowdsourced shirts with
her graphic artist’s eye, she felt that the designs were competent, but none
achieved the aesthetic standards attained by her in-house designers
Crowdsourcing essentially replaced training and expertise with public opinion
That made the artist in her uncomfortable

More distressing, it was beginning to look as if Greg had
been right when he’d told her that his working definition of crowdsourcing was
“a billion amateurs want your job†It was easy to see that if Off the Hook
adopted crowdsourcing, she would be handing out pink slips to most of her
design people, longtime employees whose work she admired “Sure, crowdsourcing
costs the company less, but what about the human cost?†Greg asked

What future course should Ai-Lan argue for at the meeting?
And what personal decisions does she face if Off the Hook decides to put the
crowd completely in charge when it comes to T-shirt design?

What Would You Do?

1 Go to the
meeting and argue for abandoning crowdsourcing for now in favor of maintaining
the artistic integrity and values that Off the Hook has always stood for

2 Accept
the reality that because Rob strongly favors crowdsourcing, it’s a fait
accompli Be a team player and help work out the details of the new design
approach Prepare to lay off graphic designers as needed

3 Accept
the fact that converting Off the Hook to a crowdsourcing business model is
inevitable, but because it violates your own personal values, start looking for
a new job elsewhere

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