TECHNOLOGY SPECTATOR: Telework today, cloud labour tomorrow

National Telework Week may work as a promotional platform for the NBN but a traditional view of teleworking is only a small step in the shift towards a global, interconnected workforce.

Technology Spectator

Although the National Telework Week is the Gillard government’s rather roundabout way of promoting the benefits of the national broadband network, it focuses on a very traditional view of the teleworker. In this view, the teleworker is basically an employee who can do some, or all, of her work from home. However, this looks at the impact of the internet on work in probably the wrong way.

The question isn’t whether an employee can use the internet to work from home, it is rather whether the internet enables the business to do without the employee at all. Just as businesses are turning to cloud computing instead of having their own computers and software services, 'cloud labour' has the potential to deliver companies a much more efficient and productive way of servicing many of their employee needs and requirements.

The main benefit of cloud computing is that it is frictionless and elastic. Frictionless refers to the ability to easily (and inexpensively) set up the computers and software you need to meet your needs. A new server can be bought, configured, and up-and-running in as little as five minutes. Elastic refers to the ability of cloud computing to expand or contract along with your needs. You only pay for what you use. These features have been applied in the cloud labour market to give businesses the same flexibility.

The most well-known of cloud labour platforms is Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, which provides a platform for requesters to submit tasks that pay as little as a few cents each and can be done by qualified providers. Typical tasks that are carried out on Mechanical Turk are transcription, analysis of images, searching for information on the internet, surveys and posting links. Other companies such as oDesk and MobileWorks are providing more skilled services including programming, sales and marketing, admin support and design. As with Mechanical Turk, jobs are pitched with a rate of pay.

From the worker’s perspective, being part of a cloud labour force has its attractions. Finding work is simplified and it can usually be fitted into a flexible schedule and environment. The work can be done in any part of the world from any other part, increasing the availability of work. The negative of course is that workers are competing in a global marketplace and this serves to drive the rates of pay down. Web developers for example list themselves at rates as low as $10 an hour on oDesk. This is less than you would earn at McDonald’s in Australia.

From 'cloud labour' to 'cloud manufacturing'

Although aimed at mainly information worker jobs, cloud labour could be adapted to allow for 'cloud manufacturing'. With the development of 3D printing for example, people in their homes could do assembly-type jobs.

Chris Anderson describes this scenario in his book Makers. Combined with open-source collaboration, he talks about the entire process of designing, testing and bringing products to market, all from the home.

To a certain extent, cloud labour develops on more traditional business or manufacturing outsourcing. The difference is in the more distributed nature of the workforce and the fact that they are not in themselves employees of a single outsourcing company. The most important distinction that cloud labour brings though is the fact that it allows anyone from the individual to the Fortune 500 Company to access resources in this way.

The potential for cloud labour is huge for both employees and employers. It provides ready access to services that would be too expensive if sourced in the more traditional way, including actually employing someone to carry out the service. For companies that hire casuals to do a significant amount of routine work, removing the overheads of finding, employing and managing a casual workforce is benefit enough. This is especially the case if the work required is sporadic.

From a national perspective, the use of cheap labour to enhance the productivity of your own companies is attractive. Along with this comes the outsourcing of issues with education, labour relations and health problems to the nations providing the cloud labour.

So perhaps the government should be promoting National Cloud Worker Week instead of talking about teleworking. Technologies like the NBN will allow for far more than just taking existing work practices and putting them online. Fast internet will change the underlying nature of work and how we collaborate globally.

David Glance is a director at the Centre for Software Practice at The University of Western Australia.

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