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Taking Microtask to task?

Mon, 11/01/2010 - 5:11am
Yankee Group

Yankee Group is focused on the Anywhere revolution — the developments and upsets in networks that are transforming our connections with each other and the things we care about. I’ve said many times in the past few years that, among those transformations, the emergence of ubiquitous connectivity will eventually redefine the very nature of work — what it is, how it’s done, and who does it.

On a visit to Finland earlier this year, I wrote about the exciting innovators I met at a mobile conference. There were close to a dozen start-ups presenting at the event, and afterwards I had a hard time choosing which ones to mention. I left one out of the blog posting that nonetheless made its way into my speeches for the last six months, as I made the point above: that the expansion of the network will change the nature of work.

The concept of the firm was to provide a way to break down repetitive work into tiny, tiny pieces, which the founders call micro-tasks, so that they can be done by large numbers of people with connected devices but no other connections to each other or to the work itself. Software reassembles their micro-contributions into a completed result at a higher level of meaning, such as the form in the illustration below whose individual fields were transcribed independently but collected into a finished transcription.

So I was delighted to see yesterday that MicroTask — just getting off the ground when I was in Helsinki in May — has since progressed enough to have merited the attentions of Randall Stross in his regular column for The New York Times. I was happy to see the firm progressing, and also pleased to have my choice of an example for our thinking endorsed by such a powerful thinker.

But in reading the piece, my spirits sagged. While explaining the innovation at MicroTask, Stross presumes that the key implication is to drive down the cost of labor. He quoted researchers in the U.S. as reporting that, as workers using a similar technology that anonymously crowdsources repetitive work, they couldn’t manage to even reach the minimum wage.

In the United States, that is.

Stross has completely missed the point. It’s understandable; he looked at the world through his North American eyes. Perhaps, to give Stross credit, that bias was unchallenged by MicroTask itself as it coalesces its messaging around the commercial market that represents its nearest revenue opportunity.

The real point, as I see it, is this: the further expansion of digital connectivity, and accompanying creative ways to use that widening infrastructure, will continue to democratize access to the world’s assets.

In the political hue and cry in the U.S. and Western Europe about outsourcing — which owes its existence to the digital network reaching India and the Philippines through undersea cabling — the most significant consequence has been the creation of a massive new middle class in Asia, with the resources to purchase bicycles and cars, appliances, educations, and everything else that those of us living in more evolved markets attach to that economic status.

And yes, businesses that figured out how to re-organize the structure of their work — gathering up billing, processing of customer complaints, writing software — certainly became more competitive within their industries. But while they endured the wrath of local politicians and unions, these firms also contributed to the expansion of the global economy by providing broader access to productive work.

Microtask is on the forefront of the same revolution, version 2.0. From chunking up work at the division level and moving it elsewhere in aggregate, which still depends on collecting qualified labor in another specific location, along with adequate power, water, housing, and enterprise-grade network connectivity, we can now move to the total atomization, as I like to call it, of work.

When a two-second microtask can be done by someone with a basic mobile phone — not a smartphone but a $20 featurephone — then inhabitants of regions as limited in infrastructure as sub-Saharan Africa and remote parts of Southeast Asia can deliver the work. Those regions have populations who today can only dream of reaching the U.S. minimum wage level, living as they do on less than $2 a day.

Microtask, and Stross by extension, are right about the disruptive power of giving work to other people. But it’s not about us, it’s about the rest of the world. Let’s let the atomization of tasks do the same thing for other regions that outsourcing at the process level did for India. Work is going to the cloud. Not to another place, like Bangalore, but to all places. Try and demonize that.

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