How does task-work revolutionize digital labor?

I have been very intrigued and puzzled by the concept of task-work since I heard a month ago about (see company Microtask). What is this new kind of work? Recently Esko Kilpi wrote an article “Task work in global networks” that  clarified many things for me. This is a response to that article (and that is why I make an exception and write in English).

What is task-work?

The concept of work is changing from role-based to task-based. Task-based digital labor traded as a commodity will trigger one of the most fundamental disruptive economic changes of the near future. According to  Microtask website we are spesificly talking about this kind of work:

We concentrate on work which is menial, repetitive and tiresome. Such work typically consists of manual verification, classification or identification. Examples of such work include surveillance monitoring, digitizing and annotation of archives, verification of user-generate content and handling of receipts, invoices, handwritten documents and other such documents.

Not all knowledge work is complex and mentally challenging! I suggest that automatical coordination of task-work works best if the level of complexity of tasks low (Stratum-I in Elliott Jaques terms). Characteristics of this kind of work include:

  • The time-span of the task is (extremely) short.
  • We know already beforehand what the outcome looks like.
  • Work path is linear and predetermined.
  • Required exercise of mental discretion has to do with separating “acceptable” result from “unacceptable”.
  • Creativity has to do with being appreciative of concrete little nuances in the in task accomplishment in order to be more efficient.

There are many similarities with task-working and low-level production work being done in developing countries with cheap labor. The innovation with task-work is that now the same trend that happened with industrial labor is possible with digital labor. Even though this trend has huge implications,  I don’t see digital labor that requires high level conceptualization and design being task-worked around the world anytime soon. Just as Nike shoes are still being designed in USA, digital task design and coordination will be organized in an “old fashioned way”. Or maybe not.

Task work does not remove hierarchy

I want to point out that there is a natural hierarchy of work complexity embedded in task-work systems also.

  • Stratum I: Doing given tasks according to specifications
  • Stratum II: Formulating and defining the specifications of tasks: What is the problem, and what solution do we need?
  • Stratum III: Creation of best practices and guidelines for applying task-work in a company
  • Stratum IV: Architectural design of the task-work platform with all its sub-entities so that it matches company strategic as well as end user needs.
  • Stratum V-VI: In order for concept of task-work to emerge, somebody has had to understand global trends and what implications that has on digital labor, and device a company strategy based on that broad understanding.

Task-work needs this kind of fully coordinated natural hierarchy in order to function. Different work levels add their own unique value to the system. This kind of hierarchy can actually be very flexible if its ultimate resource are the people and their ability to handle mental demands of work at their level.

Is the future of work in the hands of Terminator managers?

John Fleming and Jim Asplund demand in their book Human Sigma an end to “Terminator School of Management”. Terminator managers assume that businesses are made up of a collection of people performing tasks. Thus all work is being modularized into small tasks and ultimately all human work becomes a commodity. Human beings are to be subordinated to automation.

Task-work system brings a lot of added value to organizing simple Stratum I tasks. However, without the understanding of stratification of digital work one can easily get the idea that all digital work can be commoditized. Task-work that is applied uniformly to all work is an extreme case of terminator management. Task modularization kills creativity and motivation in people capable of performing higher level tasks. It is the number 1 reason most talented software developers and architects become frustrated with their work and leave their company.

I believe that organizing work based on tasks, not rigid roles, can bring benefits across organization (not just Stratum I). We need to take into account that the nature of work changes as the  complexity of elements being coordinated in a task increases. What do you think task-based work looks like at higher Strata?

Knowledge management should be about organizational design

Esko Kilpi says “knowledge management databases have not met the situational needs of managers”. Knowledge as such is a commodity, and its value is determined by the context. Instead of hoarding more and more knowledge companies should focus on lowering their knowledge related transaction costs. This is why task-work has potential to dramatically lower fixed costs and increase efficiency. Knowledge management should focus on organizational design in order to add real value for in an organization.

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