A few years ago, a client introduced me to the early beginnings of the social computer. He was explaining a service on Amazon called Mechanical Turk. That service turns out to be a combination of computers linked by the internet and millions of people all over the world who are willing to use their internet-linked computers to do work for anyone willing to pay. Mechanical Turk originally focused on repetitive tasks, like data entry, for a very small sum per task.
Since my first introduction to Mechanical Turk, other sites have grown both in scope and sophistication. Sites like oDesk and eLance take on projects of considerably more complexity. Each of these sites has literally millions of people anxious to perform the work that you have for them. There are specialist sites for nearly any type of work or research, from legal services to software development.
The social computer, roughly defined, is a combination of computational tasks and human pattern recognition capabilities and creativity on a global scale. Computers are used for the repetitive and data collection tasks for which they are so well equipped. Humans, it turns out, are better at pattern recognition. Being able to ask millions of people to weigh in on a subject gives them a high measure of validation. Having millions of people competing to service your needs guarantees effective pricing.
The guiding concept behind the social computer is disaggregation. In practice, disaggregation simply means taking a large, complex unit of work – a project, for example – and breaking down each component of the project into smaller, discrete tasks. Those tasks are then further reduced to microtasks. The microtasks can be completed by virtually anyone with a modicum of computer skill and connection to the internet.
The hierarchy of work is a diamond rather than a pyramid because once the microtasks are completed, they are returned to the center which had originally disaggregated them for reaggregation. This model requires, then, highly competent, conceptual thinkers at the top of the diamond and again at the bottom of the diamond. The work done in between can be done by people of varying skill and ability. It can also be done virtually anywhere, at any time.
The focus and purpose of disaggregation is to reduce enormously complex challenges into manageable, discrete tasks that can be accomplished by a combination of human intervention and the massive crowd computing power of the internet. The main, and considerable, challenge is to know when a task can be handled by a machine, and when human intervention is required.
The significance for business of this trend is potentially astounding. In the CEO Peer Group that I facilitate, we have been focusing on transferring fixed cost to variable costs. Several of the 17 companies in the group have utilized the social computer to fulfill personnel needs for projects with limited time span. This completely eliminated the need to hire full time employees who would not be required upon completion of the project.
For example, one of my clients needed to find the current email addresses and law firms for 3,500 attorneys. In the past, he would have hired a few temporary clerks at $10-15/hour to come to his office, use his computers, and, on an hourly basis, track down the whereabouts of the attorneys on the list.
Using Mechanical Turk, he sent out the job specification. The entire project took just under 12 hours, and the hourly cost was $2.48! On top of all of this, Amazon’s Mechanical Turk guaranteed the quality of the work in accordance with the specifications stipulated by my client. Amazon pays the workers. My client pays Amazon.
I could provide scores of similar, well-defined jobs my clients have completed over the past few years. Our focus is constantly on improving two things: efficiency of operations (including cost minimization), and; getting the work done by the people with the appropriate skill set, neither wasting talent nor giving too difficult tasks to those unable to satisfactorily complete them.
At ExecuVision International, we have worked with dozens of companies of all sizes to create the most efficient mix of remote task completion and high touch human input. Connecting with the global social computer creates opportunities for exponential cost reduction and increased job satisfaction.
Could we ask for a better outcome?