Beyond Walls


Some production activities have historically taken the form of bringing groups of individuals together for specific projects. Online work platforms—such as Freelancer and Upwork—that connect clients with freelance workers around the world allow businesses to “unbundle” complex projects into smaller units that can then be contracted to an on-demand labor pool online, minimizing costs. They allow workers to reach a global market for their labor, increasing their opportunities of finding flexible, paid work. Some platforms provide a variety of services to help workers develop new skills and build their online reputations.

Modern IT-based work platforms support new definitions and distributions of work tasks in new ways; they employ Internet-based communications and smartphone applications to make work available, then assign that work to individuals or groups based on bid, proposal, or contest mechanisms. Crowdsourcing, open-call, and open innovation platforms can be used to redefine the nature of tasks themselves and to change how that work is organized and distributed both within and across organizational bounds.

Crowdsourcing platforms work on the basis of tasks being decomposed into smaller units, even to the level of microtasks. These are then made available through open-call or auction mechanisms to people beyond strictly defined work teams or organizational bounds, including, but not necessarily beyond, a given firm. Contest-based work solicitation systems, in contrast, operate by seeking solutions to often large-scale, complex challenges, but they too reach out to people beyond the boundaries of traditionally assigned job roles. Like crowdsourcing, contests can be run internally at a firm among already salaried employees.

Even in the case of internal uses of crowdsourcing and contests, designing how work will be performed, managing both the processes and labor of production, and ensuring quality affects the work people do and how they do it. Managers may no longer have the same level of authority in managing where and how employee’s time is invested. Workers may find that their ability to control their own performance is more tightly circumscribed, or the opposite—they may be responsible for providing a particular output but be free to select how to arrive at that outcome. Collaborations and work relationships can be both forged and weakened by these mechanisms.

In general, IT can lower the costs of transactions and searches, which leads to more market-based interactions and temporary contracting. These developments suggest that the overall demand for work may not necessarily be threatened by technology, but rather that the shape of that work, and whether the tasks remain bundled into traditional “jobs”, is subject to change.


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