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Cloudsourcing and lean methodology tap customer input

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Whether your IT organization is thinking about becoming lean or using cloudsourcing techniques, it all boils down to customer input. After all, they’re the ones on the front line, with the best information about your company’s product strategy.

Unlike old-fashioned focus groups, cloudsourcing and the lean methodology ensure that businesses stay focused on customers’ needs while continuously improving business processes to eliminate waste, save money and ensure customer loyalty.

My story on Nationwide Mutual Insurance Co.’s lean initiative on this week demonstrated how an organization can bring employees from various departments together to identify redundancies in business processes. Putting lean concepts to work, in 2010 Nationwide was able to trim $2 million in excess costs, according to Mimi Chizever, vice president for claims technology at the Columbus, Ohio-based insurance company.

According to Chizever, the lean methodology is all about understanding interdependencies between departments; reusing code and other resources as much as possible; and above all, staying focused on customer requirements. The lean process works backwards: Instead of finding a market for a product, companies find out what customers need, then focus on solutions and deliver them just in time.

One way to find out what customers need is to use cloudsourcing. This is a technique in which companies poll their customers to drive development. The idea comes out of the concept called crowdsourcing (where businesses look for feedback, ideas and talent in a crowd of users), but the cloud aspect enables the interaction to take place anywhere, through a Web browser.

For example, Vision Critical Communications Inc., an interactive market research company based in Vancouver, British Columbia, uses its Sparq cloud platform to manage research data from thousands of respondents to its polls quickly and conveniently. Sparq also is available to Vision Critical clients so they can deploy surveys, review results and communicate with their customers.

Auto racing organization NASCAR, for example, uses the Sparq platform to ask race attendees their opinions about various issues and generate buzz. Other Sparq users include the National Football League, Major League Baseball, ESPN, Taco Bell, Nordstrom, Frito Lay — about a quarter of the companies in the Fortune 500, according to Andrew Reid, Vision Critical founder.

Vendors including Oracle Corp. are jumping on the cloudsourcing bandwagon. Oracle announced last month that it would integrate Accept Corp.’s Accept360 crowdsourcing software with its Oracle CRM On Demand. The integration will enable users to create internal and external social communities where customers and partners can collaborate and vote on, and prioritize product, campaign, services and opportunity innovation ideas.

Even New York City is getting into cloudsourcing, launching an online program called Simplicity, which is based “on the idea that government should be organized around the needs of its customers, who are taxpayers, businesses and service users,” said Mayor Michael Bloomberg in his January State of the City address. “In the year ahead, we’ll launch online forums where every city employee can post ideas that he or she thinks will improve services or save the city money. Others will be able to comment on those proposals, and then we’ll implement the best ones.”

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