Technology has made working remotely easier than ever. And many companies are taking advantage of this—not just by having workers telecommute, but by outsourcing certain jobs to contract workers. The movement towards contract work—think platforms like Amazon Mechanical Turk, ClickWorkers, CrowdFlower—is part of a larger trend away from regular employment and towards piecing together tasks.
Gartner analyst Diane Morello has been working with companies for years to help them keep up with workforce trends. The movement towards contract work "reminds me of when my immigrant grandparents came to work in New York City and did piece work," she said.
While the technology is certainly there, she thinks that the success of piecework hinges on the "basics of organizational and institutional competence."
"It's about whether or not companies can make this work," said Morello. "That's the bigger challenge out there."
Morello thinks that companies need to catch up with the idea that they need to outsource work. She speaks to 10-12,000 companies around the world, employing about 250,000 people. Among all those companies, she sees "a very small fraction understanding that they can start to break down work into increasingly smaller components and break it apart to some kind of massively parallel processing mode," she said. "They can have bits and pieces done and then reassemble that onsite."
Most companies she talks to still think of this as outsourcing. "They're not really advancing their models and thinking around how work is getting done, or more important how technology in this digital technology platform enables them to reach hundreds of people to get work done in smaller chunks in a faster way," said Morello.
The big difference, she said, is that it's a shift towards work as a transaction versus a relationship. Not only do business want work done in small pieces, but she sees "a consuming audience who wants to do that."
"The businesses we talk to who are struggling to find the right talent and the right people say they want the relationship," she said. "But when you delve into it, what they're looking for are people who can finish work products."
"I absolutely see larger companies outsourcing things that are non-core," said David Chang, entrepreneur-in-residence at Harvard Business School, and previous co-founder of SnapMyLife.
Chang used Trip Advisor as an example, where "the sheer volume of work" created a huge demand for contract work. "At TripAdvisor, we had classifiers who helped with that," said Chang.
He also sees a distinction between core and non-core functions as important. In core tasks, "the company wants to build up a competency or muscle around a key area," said Chang. "For Apple, hardware/software is core, so they don't outsource it," he said, "while at Microsoft, they happily let others deal with hardware (e.g. Dell, HP)."
It's all part of meeting a huge demand to complete tasks.
"There are thousands and thousands of companies that are all feverishly looking around for people to do work in the context of information and technology and web design and the like," said Morello.
"This is a channel to get some work done."
Businesses, Morello believes, will "splinter into two different directions. One will be those businesses that have extraordinary cultures, core sets of values, and taken advantage of all the aspects and ways that they can piece together someone's expertise in the work," she said.
The other group "will continue to work with a single pipeline that tends to go through HR. It's probably not going to operate at the speed that the modern business community is operating at."
Digital technology, she said, will "blow the employment model apart. It will send people in one direction where there are a lot of users of digital technology to find the expertise they need anywhere on the planet."
There's a risk, Morello said, for not taking this seriously.
"You are either leaders or you are laggers," she said. "Nobody can be in the middle."
The 3 big takeaways for TechRepublic readers
- Platforms like Amazon Mechanical Turk, CrowdFlower, and ClickWorkers take advantage of a remote labor force to get tasks completed.
- Outsourcing small tasks is part of a bigger trend that shifts business models from "relationship" to "transaction," according to Gartner analyst.
- Separating core and non-core work is essential to managing flow of work—and many companies are becoming more efficient by farming out non-core tasks.
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- When robots eliminate jobs, humans will find better things to do (ZDNet)
- Why it's time to prepare for a world where machines can do your job (ZDNet)
Hope Reese has nothing to disclose. She doesn't hold investments in the technology companies she covers.
Hope Reese is a journalist in Louisville, KY. Her writing has been featured in The Atlantic, The Boston Globe, The Chicago Tribune, Playboy, Undark Magazine, VICE, Vox, and other publications.