Request a Catalog.

Need Talented Performers? Join the Crowd.

At this year’s Super Bowl, two teams squared off. One was composed of an all-star roster of talent, featuring the best players money could buy. The other was a bunch of amateurs who had never played on this stage before. I’m not talking about the game itself (that was pretty amateurish, too, but that’s another story). I’m talking about an even more high-stakes competition: the annual battle for the honorary title of “best commercial,” which featured the vaunted advertising superstars of the Madison Avenue agencies versus the creators of a Doritos ad —a pair of decidedly nonprofessional consumers who made the spot in response to a Doritos contest.

Who won? Well, it depends on who you ask, but many experts think that it was at least a draw, and some claim that the amateurs soundly defeated the advertising all-stars. The irony was about as subtle as a Mike Ditka press conference. During an event that’s supposed to be all about admiring the work of the best talent in the world—both on the football field and in the surrounding commercial hype—the advertising pros were upstaged by a group of amateurs.

Doritos’ effort—which aimed to capitalize on the trendy concept of user-generated content—drew a lot of attention from the advertising industry press. Some pundits wondered aloud if the days of the brilliant creative director were numbered. It touched on some particularly sensitive nerves in the advertising world, where sheer talent is revered above all things, even more so than in most industries. Small wonder, then, that the pros were aghast at the suggestion that their jobs could be done just as well by civilians.

The Doritos ad was primarily a one-time stunt, so to suggest that it was broadly indicative of a trend is premature, to say the least. Nevertheless, viewed from a wider perspective, it drives home the point that in the never-ending search for talent, companies are breaking new ground. They have to, for as the long-predicted war for talent heats up, companies will need to turn to such approaches to fill their talent needs. With labor shortages and a scarcity of skilled workers on the horizon, new practices such as the “crowdsourcing” movement—in which companies tap external communities for their talent and know-how—have begun to gain traction.

The immediate appeal of crowdsourcing is easy to understand. Rather than a needle-in-the-haystack search for talented individuals, it gives companies access to an entire network of expertise. For example, Innocentive—a Website created by pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly—allows companies such as Procter & Gamble to post R&D problems, which visitors to the site can try to solve for a chance at a reward. Also, like outsourcing, crowdsourcing can be tremendously cost efficient. The Doritos ad cost all of $13 to produce, plus the $10,000 the brand paid to the contest winners, versus the millions paid by other advertisers.

Crowdsourcing’s true advantage, however, is that it brings together two incipient megatrends, the talent shortage crisis and the growing popularity of collaborative business practices.

The war for talent is taking place in the age of collaboration. At the same time that they struggle to find the talent that will lead them to success, organizations are turning to customers, business partners, and even competitors for strategic alliances aimed at fostering innovation and driving growth. The collaboration trend and the talent shortage trend have largely evolved separately, but the time may be right for the two to converge into a single framework.

The Home Depot is just one of the companies that has started to exploit the potential of such an approach. The home-improvement retailer recently formed Orange Works, a joint venture with design and branding firm Arnell Group that pools together the talent resources of Home Depot, its vendor community and Arnell to develop new and innovative products.

Through Orange Works, Home Depot gets access to Arnell’s expertise in stylish product design, an area in which the retailer is weak. The chain could have tried to build that competency by hiring its own design gurus, but such experts are hard to find. Also, the cultural fit might have been a hard sell. Home Depot is better known for its nuts-and-bolts approach to business than being a Mecca for fashion mavens; it’s easy to imagine how bringing in an outsider could backfire. Turning to the collaborative approach gives Home Depot the talent it needs while simultaneously reducing the risk it takes.

On a grander scale, the mass collaboration phenomenon described in the recent best-seller Wikinomics has transformed companies even in old-line industries such as mining. As the authors of the book convincingly argue, the age of mass collaboration is here to stay, and companies that don’t embrace it will fade into irrelevance. “For smart companies,” the authors write, “the notion that you have to motivate, develop, and retain all of your best people internally is old.”

That’s not to say crowdsourcing and collaboration are going to completely replace traditional ideas about the importance of internal talent. Ironically, one of the companies most admired for being an early adopter of mass collaboration, Google, is also one of the pickiest companies when it comes to recruiting superstar performers to join its team. Crowdsourcing and collaboration are worth keeping in mind, but fundamentals such as recruitment, compensation and retention are still the core of successful talent management. Ultimately, the talent war will be won in the trenches.