Archive for the ‘Future of Work’ Category

To fully appreciate the impact of the most recent technological revolution and its impact on how humans interact, relate to the world, and form groups, it is instructive to look back to the fifteenth century, when Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of the moveable type printing press forever changed how people were able to communicate across geographies and cultures.

A thought leader on modern communication technology and media, Howard Rheingold, made this comparison in a 2005 Technology Education Design (TED) Conference presentation entitled Way-New Collaboration. He explained that the ways in which human beings organize socially has been co-evolving for millennia, tracing back to the days when hunters of the great beasts of the time would exchange their surplus food for things of value, thus forming communities of trade and interdependence. Forming groups for survival is an innate behavior, but forming groups around an intellectual commons traces its roots to the period immediately following the introduction of Gutenberg’s printing press, which enabled “new forms of collective action … in the spheres of knowledge, religion and politics (Rheingold, 2005).”

Just as the printing press had a transformational impact on society in its day, the Internet is making a similar impact today. Rheingold describes a number of characteristics of the new technology that make it conducive to group formation and communication, including: ease of use, openness, self-instructing, enabling connections and intentionally group forming (2005). With the introduction of email, it was possible to bypass hierarchical and traditional structures to communicate directly with people who were previously unreachable, and this has only been intensified by web logs (blogs) and “wikis” that allow anyone in the world with access to a computer and an Internet connection to publish to a worldwide audience.

And that world seems to be getting smaller with each technological advance. If the printing press made it possible for one person’s thoughts to be accessible to many others around the world, the Internet has only accelerated this effect and decreased the barriers to entry that once existed. Stanley Milgram’s “small world” experiment (1967) ultimately became the basis for the subsequent “six degrees of separation” theory, and the later book Six Degrees, in which the author demonstrates that even on a planet populated by billions of people living in hundreds of nations and within thousands of cultures and subcultures, we are all frequently closer than we realize to others. (Watts, 2003)

“This is not really the small-world phenomenon – it’s more like a small-group phenomenon,” posits Watts in Six Degrees (2003, pg. 41). What this research pointed out for Watts, and others, was the way people would be able to use this relative proximity to get messages to others whom they could not previously connect with, and to create groups based on common interests or common goals where such a group could not have existed in the past because of the lack of a means to connect and hold such a group together.

While it was not clear at the time, Milgram’s research and the subsequent exploration of the “six degrees of separation” helped to create the framework for today’s Internet-based social networks. If one person has, conservatively speaking, five friends and five close acquaintances, and each of these friends has a similar set of friends and acquaintances, this quickly becomes a social network which, at only the second degree, consists of 60 people. (See Figure 1)

The business social networking tool LinkedIn is based on this construct, in which any member is able to assemble their own first level of contacts, friends and associates and then visualize through this first degree a second and third level of contacts. To help make these contacts more meaningful, LinkedIn introduced professional and common-interest groups which members could join, leading to a clustering effect that helped to align the interests of the LinkedIn members and create new linking possibilities based on common backgrounds or interests.

Reflecting on CrowdConf

Posted: October 6, 2010 in Future of Work

It’s amazing how a one-day conference eats up three days of your life … well, when the conference is in San Francisco and you live in Orlando. But this conference was well worth the time in transit. Now, sitting on the plane somewhere over New Mexico or maybe Texas, I am reflecting on CrowdConf 2010 and the key takeaways.

One thing that concerns me about how crowdsourcing is being depicted is that it is somehow exploitative by design. Listening to David Alan Grier’s talk about the history of crowdsourcing did nothing to dispel this notion. And when Keniks founder and CEO Patrick McKenna shared his formula for crowdsourcing, he essentially ruled out the possibility that it is viable to harness real talent but that we should instead focus our business model on the low-end work.

Here’s what I think: what we are really talking about is tapping into the global talent supply chain in ways that were never before possible, and in doing so we have the opportunity to create meaningful work and viable opportunities for people who were marginalized as a result of the Great Recession and other seismic changes in the employment market.

There’s certainly a global perspective to explore, but for the moment I want to think about the domestic implications here in the United States. By some estimates, we currently have 15 million people unemployed in the U.S. My bet is that the number is higher than this. Most of us are now beginning to realize that many of the jobs that have vanished over the last decade are not coming back. Ever.

People who have followed the accepted employment model are used to job descriptions and career paths, and while empowerment is a popular buzzword most workers have a finite amount of latitude in what they do and how they do it within the corporation. In other words, people are used to being told what to do. Here’s the upshot: as part of the obsession to streamline and automate, coupled with the availability of outsourcing services, those positions which could be tightly defined in a job description are mostly gone, either to an “offshore” service provider or simply eliminated.

Our education system is more closely aligned to the 20th century model of employment, but what if the 21st century Knowledge Economy actually requires a completely different orientation to employment? For example, what if the estimated 42 million or so “free agents” (sole proprietors, contractors, consultants, etc. – according to the Human Capital Institute) are actually on the leading edge of the next economy? What skill sets do they need to have to succeed? And how prepared are we as a workforce to take our skills directly to the marketplace and earn a living based not on a more-or-less predictable employment model but rather in the fluid free agent market?

Here’s where the lessons of crowdsourcing come in. The “game changer” which makes 21st century crowdsourcing possible is the Internet, and its ability to link people anywhere in the world. The Internet is the backbone of the new global talent supply chain, and the participants in this new economy can participate whether they are in the corporate parks of Bangalore, India or the rural counties of Indiana.

More to follow …

It’s been a while since I’ve updated my blog, but today I feel inspired! Because today, in San Francisco, over 400 people convened at the St. Regis Hotel for this first-ever CrowdConf, a conference focused on the future of (distributed) work. So what IS that? (this link takes you to a clever little video on 5min which is a cool new discovery). Well, what we really talked about was the concept of “crowdsourcing” which was coined by Jeff  Howe back in 2006.

Here’s how he describes it on his eponymous (crowdsourcing) blog:

The White Paper Version: Crowdsourcing is the act of taking a job traditionally performed by a designated agent (usually an employee) and outsourcing it to an undefined, generally large group of people in the form of an open call.

The Soundbyte Version: The application of Open Source principles to fields outside of software.

This full-day event attempted to traverse the commercial and academic perspectives of crowdsourcing and did an admirable job.