Insights

Next-gen “intranets” for the gig economy

April 20, 2016

Contingent workers are a significant and growing segment of the working population. However, the intranet as it exists today doesn’t serve this group well. Failing to adequately capture the knowledge and outputs of the “liquid workforce” poses a real threat to human capital. Taking cues from digital platforms like Uber, we explore how to evolve the intranet to meet the needs of today’s workforce.

Contingent workers – temporary, contract and part-time workers  by some definitions now account for 40% of the U.S. workforce. Deloitte has observed steady year-over-year growth in the sector.

As the trend continues towards a more elastic definition of the company - capable of sizing up or down as market conditions fluctuate - challenges associated with ensuring alignment with corporate vision, upholding brand and quality standards, protecting trade secrets and navigating government labour regulations are more salient than ever.

The word “temp” may inspire mental images of junior or secretarial employees, but the definition encompasses every level of the corporate hierarchy – all the way to the C-suite.

A fast-growing subset of contingent workers is, of course, the much-discussed gig worker: people who earn or supplement their incomes through online labour or capital platforms. The cumulative percentage of adults who have participated in some form of online platform has increased 47-fold over the last 3 years according to the JP Morgan Chase Institute.

There’s obviously big money for business in the platform model too.  The Center for Global Enterprise noted that 70 percent of so-called “unicorn” companies (startups with valuations of $1 billion or more) are platform companies.

Connecting to the workplace as a contingent worker

What’s it like to connect to the workplace as a contingent worker?

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On one side of the spectrum, the digital workplace is an impenetrable fortress, accessible only to traditional full-time employees. Contingent workers – particularly, knowledge workers, must make-do with email and possibly, a commercially-available but not necessarily IT-sanctioned solution with immediate peers (like Google Drive or Basecamp.)  These workers are ultimately shut-out from the company’s wider knowledge-base and community.

At the other extreme, the business exists as an operator of a digital platform that connects workers with work; in the most advanced scenarios, the worker signals a desire to work and the employer signals the availability of work and they are connected in near-real time. The success of the digital platform that mediates the relationship hinges in-part on its capacity to promote a high-quality experience for both worker and employer. 

Uber is a great example of this type of platform. Here’s how they manage the relationship with their drivers:

What interests me is the area that falls in-between these two ends. I’m not aware of any of our current clients pursuing a purely digital platform strategy – but the advantages of a more liquid, adaptive workforce have not gone unnoticed by many of the companies we work with. How can companies that have largely evolved in the industrial age take advantage of digital-age work solutions?

The emphasis on more immediate but transient workers requires a rethink of the way that knowledge is stored, process is governed and the way communities of knowledge workers are convened. An intranet or enterprise social network that caters only to permanent full-time employees loses a critical opportunity to absorb intelligence and maximize productivity from a significant and growing segment of the company’s workforce.

The risk of shutting out contingent workers from the digital workplace is the erosion of human capital.

The death (and perhaps rebirth) of the intranet?

Owen Thomas of ReadWrite offered an interesting take on the definition of a company in the digital age in a piece where he argued that the intranet is currently in the throes of death:

“A company today is a group of people using devices to log into services so they can access and generate data.”

Thomas’ definition of the intranet is the classical one – a privileged network only accessible “inside” the company.  But he asks an important question: what do we really mean by inside? A company’s security perimeter is no longer bound by the physical location of its buildings.  Cloud, the mobile workforce and an increasing array of connected devices have forever changed the paradigm.  He argues that the firewall has become obsolete and that security and access must rely on more predictive, behavioural measures. By his definition, the intranet is most definitely dead.

The evolution Thomas describes could not come soon enough for the access-deprived contingent workforce.

Microsoft frames the evolution of employment, collaboration and knowledge work in a way that echoes and builds upon Thomas’ definition of a company:

“people will increasingly use networks to form teams of experts on-demand and dynamically “swarm” around projects and then disperse to the next.”

You could argue though that the term “intranet” has long-been appropriated to mean something other than Thomas’ purist definition.  For 15 years, the Nielsen Norman Group has awarded the title of Best Intranet to companies that build an internal website and call it “intranet.”  In almost every case, when Nonlinear gets a call to work on an intranet, an internally-facing website is what the customer has in-mind.  Often, it’s built in the cloud.

Common design patterns for this sort of intranet have most-definitely emerged and the proliferation of intranet-in-a-box solutions have verged on commodity.

But in a world where workers might flow in and out on an as-needed basis as Microsoft describes, does the Nielsen-popularized intranet (for lack of a better name) still make sense?

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Moving towards the ideal state for contingent workers might see the intranet shift more towards the Uber-side of the spectrum.  Distilling the model to its core elements, evolved systems may need to consider how to:

  • Cultivate a talent pool that can be tapped for rapid on-demand help
  • Provide immediate and easily digestible context to fresh faces
  • Simplify the digital environment so that it is focused on the successful completion of no more than a handful of tasks; the all-you-can-eat smorgasbord that has become the modern intranet no longer applies
  • Promote consistent, quality work and customer experiences despite temporary relationships
  • Seek ways to rapidly scale work efforts; perhaps capitalizing on network effects
  • In some cases, make the digital environment where work gets done also the space where customers are serviced
  • Capture data and knowledge from the company/worker/customer relationship so that the service or product may be further improved

What might this look like?

The ultimate solution might differ based on task and industry but here are few examples I’ve found that could embody aspects of the list above.

Axiom: the disruption of law

Axiom Accelerator Contracting Platform from Axiom Law on Vimeo.

Clayton Christensen, Harvard professor, author and Silicon Valley cult-hero, once said “The worst place to develop a new business model is from within your existing business model.”  Axiom takes this advice to heart and has approached legal services from an entirely different perspective.

Most law firms are organized as partnerships; success is defined in terms of profit-per-partner. Axiom on the other hand, employs what has been termed by some as “nomadic lawyers.”  Not exactly temps – in fact, they go to some lengths to explain that they aren’t temps – Mitch Kowalski, author of Avoiding Extinction: Reimagining Legal Services for the 21st Century, describes Nomadic lawyers as “lawyers who don’t find partnership rewarding, who have become disenchanted with law firm life, and who wish to work only on an informal basis.

Aside from a very different business model, Axiom aggressively pursues the technological advantage.  Looking to commoditize and automate repeatable processes through technological innovations and augment them with seasoned legal expertise. Their work with contracts, for example, described in the video above - has been hailed as revolutionary.   The self-service system guides the process: delivering a consistent, quality experience for customers despite the sometimes nomadic nature of the staff that support it. 

Price Waterhouse Coopers – Swarming around immediate projects

PWC’s Talent Exchange is described as a “single, integrated platform that facilitates the project lifecycle from searching for open roles, to joining a project, to submitting hours and expenses, to networking.”  The organization uses it immediately fill gaps in existing project teams.  The Talent Exchange in many ways embodies Microsoft’s vision of teams that swarm around a project and disband.

The Washington Post: Finding talent

Anne Kornblut, an editor at The Washington Post, describes the difficulty in finding the “right” freelance talent at the moment of breaking news.  Inspired by TaskRabbit and Uber, they created a system where freelancer could pitch work and The Washington Post can put out calls for reporting and immediately source talent.

Mechanical Turk & TurkOpticon: Mediating employer and worker relations

Amazon’s Mechanical Turk is often cited as one of the pioneers of the gig economy.  Workers have complained however, that the marketplace can conceal employers that skirt the norms of acceptable behaviour: shirking payments by not accepting work or failing to pay anything close to a living wage.  TurkOpticon is a third-party review-system that enables participants on the worker side to evaluate the reputation of employers before engaging in work.

If maintaining a ready pool of workers is one of your goals, TurkOpticon offers insights into how to ensure the relationship remains a positive and valuable exchange for both sides.

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