Task-work in global networks

May 5th, 2010 by

Resource allocation has always been one of the main tasks of management: planning what is to be done by whom and when? In integrated factory-systems and with homogenous resources, allocation could easily be done top-down and in advance of doing anything. Planning could take place separated from the action.

When human intelligence is the decisive factor of production and when work takes place most economically in de-centralized environments, this top down process is increasingly inefficient. A manager simply cannot know who knows best, or where the best contributions could come from.

The solution has been so far to try to know what we know, and even more importantly to try to know who knows. Neither of these approaches has quite fulfilled expectations. Knowledge management databases have not met the situational needs of managers. Accordingly, knowledge workers have not been able to explain to others in a meaningful way what they know.

Because of the aforementioned needs in daily life a new, different approach has been adopted in leading global corporations. You could even claim that a new mode of knowledge production is emerging in digitally networked firms. This approach is called task-work. Task-work as a method refers to a new economic phenomenon: people from all over the network contribute small pieces of their time and expertise, voluntarily, to common projects modularized as tasks. Knowledge workers do this based on their availability, interest and experience. People choose themselves what they do, they choose the tasks they take up and the possible colleagues they temporarily want to work with.

Task-work has systemic advantages over traditional production hierarchies when the product under development is mainly immaterial in nature and the involved capital investment can be distributed in the network.

Collaboratively crafted content bases like the world’s largest encyclopedia, Wikipedia, were early examples of task-work.

We will see organizational applications emerge as technological innovations like the Microtask platform spread. For most kinds of information products, task-work is the most efficient method of creating value from a resource allocation point of view. The system of task-work develops as much bottom-up as top-down. In a top-down system the worker’s role is created and provided by the organization for the worker. The user has none or very little control over what tasks are available for him.

In the bottom-up system the user creates her role in an open-ended life stream based on her unique history and her unique intentions for the future. The knowledge worker selects the tasks best suited for her capabilities and best supporting her learning and long-term development.

Task work follows the vision of small pieces loosely joined. Task work is thus at the core of modern theory of the WEB and networked, interactive value creation. Work of the future is not role based but task-based.

Esko is on the advisory board of Microtask. He also writes his own blog about interactive value creation.


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  • Sami Sundell

    Wikipedia is a good example of what can be achieved by people collaborating and contributing pieces of information to form something meaningful. On the other hand, these collaborative sites also show the problem of completely open systems: validation of the data is hard.

    Wikipedia allows anyone to edit the articles, and it works fine as long as there are enough interested people.
    For niche information pretty much anything goes, since there are not enough people to effectively validate and complete the articles. Finnish Wikipedia has lots of examples of this: articles are often short, generic in nature and provide information that can be read from ground school books or yellow press, depending on the topic.

    Some other sites have chosen different kinds of approaches. MusicBrainz, a collaborative music metadata service relies completely on registered users making edits, and every edit – at least destructive one – has a voting period to allow anyone to check the changes.

    Foursquare allows any registered user to add new venues, but only handpicked users are allowed to fix them, and even smaller set is allowed to make destructive edits which merge or remove venues. Since the service is getting a lot of hype, they'll probably want to introduce some other mechanism pretty soon since this one has some obvious scaling issues.

    Wikipedia and MusicBrainz both have the problem that they rely on “wisdom of the crowds” and hope that the natural interest of people will generate that crowd. In practice, that's often not the case. Foursquare, on the other hand, doesn't (currently) have validation aspect in the crowd at all. Because of that, all the services offer much good information and fun data, but also spectacular failures.

  • anssibalk

    I wrote a response to this great article in my blog | “How does task-work revolutionize digital labor?” http://bit.ly/bhhrrZ

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