Back to Basics: Helping Outsiders Improve Your Company

Last Updated Oct 17, 2008 4:59 PM EDT

Although the economy has fundamentally changed in many ways, this is not the time to abandon some well earned business basics that will see you through bad times as well as good.

One of these lessons is this: Use your customers and other non-employees to help improve products. For Intuit co-founder Scott Cook, the question wasn't if but how.

Cook outlines his company's drive to create a "user contribution system" in a new Harvard Business Review article well worth your reading, The Contribution Revolution: Letting Volunteers Build Your Business.

What is a user contribution system? Cook says it's a method "for aggregating and leveraging people's contributions or behaviors in ways that are useful to other people." The best example is one you already know. On Amazon.com, individual user purchases are collected and analyzed to create individualized recommendation lists. Cook says there are 23 separate user contribution systems on a single Amazon product page.

The users can be almost anyone inside the company or out -- employees, sales prospects, customers. Their contributions can range from data collected passively at the time of a transaction to active opinions or observations harvested from online polls, user surveys, or experiences told by customer-facing employees.

Says Cook: "Such a system creates value for a business as a consequence of the value it delivers to users -- personalized purchase recommendations, connections between buyers and sellers of hard-to-find items, new personal or business relationships, lower prices, membership in a community, entertainment, information of all kinds."

Some of Cook's recommendations for setting up your own program:

Use personal experience to move mind-set. "To overcome wariness in inexperienced executives, ask enthusiasts to share stories of their personal experience with user contribution systems."

Nurture small experiments. "Encourage unofficial and 'guerrilla' experiments. Challenge employees to create contribution systems that they are passionate about, without requiring them to get clearance from management."

Let enthusiasts and young employees provide ideas and leadership. "Expect ideas for contribution systems to emerge from those who use them the most. Often, these will be your youngest employees."

Protect experiments from your company's natural control instincts. "To counter the instinct to preserve control and the status quo, name a godfather or godmother with big-time clout to protect experiments and break through barriers when initiatives meet organizational resistance."

Use your customer base to jump-start projects. "Your company probably has advantages that start-ups can only dream of: existing customers, traffic to your website, accumulated behavioral data, and, sometimes, media that will find your experiments newsworthy."

Let users "vote," early and often. "Customers are better than executives at picking winners in this arena, so get experiments into the hands of real customers as quickly as possible."

Seek organizational buy-in only after you've had some success. "Ultimately, you want innovation in user contribution to become embedded in the organization's normal processes, but you'll most likely struggle to shift mind-set until you can point to a successful experiment or two."

Tell us about your own user contribution system. How do you collect, analyze, and disperse the wisdom offered by outsiders?


  • Sean Silverthorne

    Sean Silverthorne is the editor of HBS Working Knowledge, which provides a first look at the research and ideas of Harvard Business School faculty. Working Knowledge, which won a Webby award in 2007, currently records 4 million unique visitors a year. He has been with HBS since 2001.

    Silverthorne has 28 years experience in print and online journalism. Before arriving at HBS, he was a senior editor at CNET and executive editor of ZDNET News. While at At Ziff-Davis, Silverthorne also worked on the daily technology TV show The Site, and was a senior editor at PC Week Inside, which chronicled the business of the technology industry. He has held several reporting and editing roles on a variety of newspapers, and was Investor Business Daily's first journalist based in Silicon Valley.