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Benefits Column

Crowdsourcing Employee-Benefits Options

Soliciting employee opinions is one thing, but offering employees actual decision-making power on employee benefits could give employers and their HR leaders the ability to craft more popular programs and, in turn, boost employee-satisfaction levels.

Monday, October 25, 2010
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Everyone wants to know what I think lately. I suspect the same is true for you.

In June 2010, some social-media friends worked tirelessly to gain enough support to receive a Pepsi Refresh Project grant. As a result, the Kicking Mules of Bedford High School in Temperance, Mich., won $250,000 to build a weight room.

My rock-star friend, Matt Reardon, and his band, Black Sunshine, want their fans to choose which single they'll release next. It's a good strategy. Black Sunshine's loyal followers feel included in the band's success and allow the group to make a full-time living playing their music.

And, now, Conan O'Brien would like us to select the first guest for his new talk show. Almost 4,700 people have proclaimed their choices on Twitter with about three weeks to go. Jack Nicholson holds an enormous lead over 11 competing personalities.

Our opinion is good for their business, too. The TBS leadership is gaining buzz for the show's debut and information about the potential audience for advertisers.

I watched this trend of "crowdsourcing" (which isn't yet an Oxford Dictionary-recognized word) with distracted fascination until I initiated my own opinion-seeking adventure in August 2010.

Here's some background.

A colleague asked me to submit an idea to the Institute for the Future's BodyShock competition that would "transform lifestyles and the human body to improve health in the next decade." I'm pretty creative, but thought I didn't have enough time or ideas on the back burner to conceive of something novel and to develop a "visual" submission before the two-week deadline.

That was until I thought of tapping into the crowd.

You can watch our video submission to hear the whole story. The bottom line is that the crowd was pretty wise.

Within 10 days, about 4,500 people viewed our online discussion and 17 people actively participated. We uploaded our entry -- 12@12 -- with hours to spare and finished in the top eight out of 112 entries.

Even though it's been nearly two months since we ended our idea-sourcing experiment, another 200 people have viewed our web-based conversation.

That experience led me to this thought: Is it possible to use crowdsourcing, to include employees and others, in the development of employee-benefits options?

I'm not suggesting we have employees craft requests for proposals ... well, at least, not yet. But, how much more satisfied might employees be with their benefits if they believed they had a role in creating them?

How might HR executives dip their toes into the crowdsourcing phenomenon without too much risk? You could implement a Conan-like experience and have employees vote for which benefits are most important to them. You control the choices so you know you can deliver the results.

Why go to this trouble if you, most likely, will end up in a similar place as you started? Employee satisfaction.

Matt Ridley, in his new book, The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves, cites separate research by Ronald Ingleheart and Ruut Veenhoven on happiness. It turns out, according to their respective studies, that "big gains in happiness come from living in a society that frees you to make choices about your lifestyle" and "the more individualized the nation, the more citizens enjoy their life."

Individual choice and personalization are two unshakeable trends inside and outside of employee benefits. Asking employees to weigh in on what benefits you offer may go a long way in solidifying employee trust and loyalty.

Of course, you could go to the next level, and involve employees in the creation of benefits options. This is not as daunting as it may seem. From a technology perspective, all you need is a simple discussion board. The trick comes in how you gather the crowd and facilitate the exchange.

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Here are five lessons we learned from our 12@12 idea-sourcing experience:

1. Make it easy for people to participate. Start with a simple, non-threatening way for people to jump in. In our case, participants listed words or phrases that described what made them passionate about health.

2. Give a timeframe for each phase of the discussion. Most people respond better to deadlines.

3. Provide encouragement. Give positive feedback for the participants' ideas and encourage everyone else to do the same.

4. Bring people from diverse backgrounds into the exchange. Most of our crowd's concrete idea suggestions came from people who were not healthcare, wellness or prevention experts. I think it was easier for them to look at the discussion and not get trapped in theory. You may have to recruit people outside the online crowd's demographic. That's what we did.

5. Don't get in the way of the conversation. If you're leading or facilitating the group, try to keep your opinions to a minimum. Your job is to keep the group moving ahead, feeling good about the discussion and sticking to the deadlines.

No matter what your thoughts are about crowdsourcing, realize it's a trend with potential.

Jane McGonigal is a game designer who has created an online game to idea source ways to break down the barriers that are slowing the pace of medical research. You can join the game on Nov. 9 and 10 to get a sense of how crowdsourcing can work.

Or, join the 12@12 crowd. To date, no one has publicly done crowdsourcing around workplace issues. We'd like to offer you a chance to join our group.

Maybe you'll become one of the 90-plus percent who simply watch. Or, maybe, you'll tell us what you think.

At minimum, you'll be one of the crowd.

Carol Harnett is a widely respected consultant, speaker, writer and trendspotter in the fields of employee benefits, health and productivity management, health and performance innovation, and value-based health. Follow her on Twitter via @carolharnett.

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