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Ai Lan Nguyen told her friend Greg Barnwell that Off the Hook Tees based in Asheville.

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Crowdsourcing 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 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 p...

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Crowdsourcing 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 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 each screen print was a work of art. Those graphic artists reported to Ai-Lan. During the past 18 months, Off the Hook’s sales stagnated 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 tees 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 the Web-based crowdsourcing because it made T-shirt design more responsive to consumer desires. Practically speaking, it reduced the uncertainty that surrounded new designs, and it dramatically lowered costs. The people who won the competitions were delighted with the exposure 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 did she face if Off the Hook decided to put the crowd completely in charge when it came 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 Off the Hook’s CEO Rob Taylor 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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To determine an action to take on the proposed new business model, A needs to balance the vision of the company – producing high quality designs that are a work of art – against the basic value of a business, which is to produce items that meet customer needs and to make a profit for shareholders.

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