The Changing Nature of Work

Posted by Dwayne Spradlin on Jul 10, 2009 3:13:28 PM

My usual answer to the question "What has happened to make Crowdsourcing the ‘it' trend?" is not at all surprising: the Internet, Globalization, and Broad Acceptance of Social Networking Principles.  But I increasingly believe that there is another that is perhaps equally important and more profound in its impact on our lives.  With credit due someone else for the term I'm sure, I call it "The Changing Nature of Work".

Now before you dismiss my premise, saying "What work?  Unemployment is out of control!", hear me out.

I am not talking about the current difficult economy.  Nor am I going to fixate on the positive macroeconomic ramifications of increasing innovation efficiencies through crowdsourcing for organizations.  Those topics get plenty of coverage.

I am talking about the positive and empowering impact on real people and their work made possible by the increasing trend toward project based work on a global scale.  Today, too few have the opportunity to do the work for which they are exceptionally capable and passionate, but that is changing.

Why is this so important?  Because the current system of matching people to work is weathered and insufficient.  As in all things human, there are a multitude of reasons why, but the reality is that billions of people are not doing what they could or should be doing.  They are punching the clocks and doing good work to be sure, but are they doing the kind of work that comes from applying their talents and energy toward the work products for which they have a passion?  In fact some would argue that MOST people are in the WRONG jobs.  The opportunity costs are incalculable.

Let me illustrate the point with story.  I grew up on the southern tip of Lake Michigan (Remember John Cougar Mellencamp's Small Town?) in a very likable town called Michigan City, IN - people are terrific and quality of life is good.  Half of my college bound friends went to Indiana University, half went to Purdue, few left the state.  Not surprisingly, most returned home from college and live there today.  Even in a tough economy, moving away to find their dream job is the last thing that most would consider.  Why should they?  With family, friends, and firmly established roots, home is home.  This story repeats itself everywhere. Let's add to this the realities of those with the desire but not the means by which to relocate to where their dream jobs may reside, or the tradeoffs we make to accommodate child care or parent care, or the multitude of other reasons.  Our occupations are almost always the result of tradeoffs and limited options.  Practical realities and local economies shape our options.   No less true in India or other places around the world than in the USA.

Now this is important: when people are both passionate and good at what they do, productivity is extraordinary - not just a little better, a LOT.

There are millions of people now that work when they want, where they want, and on projects for which they are passionate and energized.  We know them as self employed, freelancers, independent contractors.  But it is only the start.  The increasingly outdated model of job postings, internal transfers, and employment agreements is disintegrating and is being replaced by a new work model of the future that has enormous implications for both the individual and the economy.  Many soon-to-be clichés are vying for popular acceptance to name the phenomenon - but my favorite is Free Agent Nation (see Fast Company article at

Society is increasingly evolving in favor of enabling the individual, and that movement is accelerating.  Some call the current crop of youth the Millennial Generation.  These are children who are ‘growing up digital'.  Most will have 8 or more jobs in their lifetimes.  They value more what they are doing and why than for whom they work.  Employer Loyalty and Lifetime Employment are dated concepts to them.  They are more connected and informed than ever (See Growing Up Digital: The Rise of the Net Generation by Don Tapscott) and have their own visions of work.  They are empowered.

But it's not just the younger generations.  Gen X and Gen Y people I know are increasingly opting for a life of consulting: project based work in areas they love.  They work their own hours, on their own terms.  Most love the lifestyle (although this economy does have its challenges) and tell me the work life balance and the fact that they are doing what they love easily trumps the old model.

So what does this mean?  It means that Crowdsourcing is both enabling AND being enabled by a powerful trend in the workplace.  People all over the world, plugging into work they love to do, on terms they decide, and in ways that allow them to have it all.  What if that someone in Hometown USA or Anytown China could apply their skills, whether it was customer service or civil engineering, on projects anywhere at any time?  As an example, in InnoCentive's world, creative minds everywhere apply their talents to problems that matter.  Geography, time of day, work habits - none of those matter.  They still need to be great at what they do, but the tools and engagement models are all developing at a rapid pace.

And real world economics still need to work.  If a million people's dream job is to be a Sports Agent, then we'll have a lot of unemployed Arlisses out there, new model or not.   One brilliant aspect of the new model is for supply and demand to ebb and flow in efficient ways.  Maybe I can not be the Sports Agent, but I could try my hand at Sports writing as a free agent.  And maybe I do that from my home on the Southern tip of Lake Michigan.

The profound implication is this: I believe an enormous increase in national and global productivity comes from getting this model right in the next 10 to 20 years.  People work on projects for which they are passionate and capable (driving up productivity many fold) and maintain a work/life balance never before possible and organizations achieve their goals better, faster, and more cost effectively than ever before possible.

I have to confess that I also find certain poetry in the idea that what is good for us individually may also be what is good for us all.   I believe this is the proverbial "win-win".  But make no mistake, the individual has more leverage and flexibility in the equation than ever before.  This is the Working Man's MegaTrend.

Let me leave you with an excerpt from a blog post from one of our 2007 Top Solvers, Ed Melcarek:

" ... I posted and subsequently won my first award, back in ‘03.  That award saved me from the welfare office, and re-affirmed my confidence in myself.  My batteries were re-charged ...  I've given up trying to fit round pegs into a square holes and jumping through corporate status quo hoops.  InnoCentive does all that work with their Seeker companies, and lets me just do the science; a dream job, considering that I get to choose the Challenges I want to work on."

What are your thoughts?

Topics: Innovation Insights

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