When I first became self-employed – back in the days of quill pens and candles, naturally – I found it relatively easy to earn more than I had as a staff writer on magazines and papers. The reason was simple: it meant that I could write for more than one `employer’, generating more opportunities for work.
At the same time, however, my Mother would say to me:
That’s all very well dear, but isn’t time you got a proper job?
And here is a question that sums up a major dilemma facing a growing number of people – should they really be `employed’ at all, these days?
Is self-employment the work direction of the future, and are the collaborative capabilities of the cloud the tools to make it happen?
What raised this thought was a blog brought to my attention by a Facebook friend. The blog set out the views of an individual who had trained hard at a serious specialism – anthropology – and then could not find a job in academia as an anthropologist.
It occurred to me that the writer just might be setting his sights too low, on two counts. First of all he was after a job, rather than thinking: “how can my skills be exploited both by me and some organisation that might need them?”
Second of all, he was not thinking outside the box of having a `proper job’. `Anthropologists’ are full-time academics that work in dusty museums or holes in the ground of far-flung fields, pondering how people used to live.
But that is only one way the anthropological skill set can be used. People live now, and face the same fundamental dilemmas about what are – to them – new technologies. After all, humanity has always been on the bleeding edge of technological development, and I suspect it has always reacted in broadly similar ways to it.
Dammit, companies like Intel employ anthropologists.........and for that very reason: the skills of anthropology can be applied to how people are living now, and how they might live in the future. Using that gives any hi-tech organisation a better chance of predicting what products might be needed in five or 10 year’s time.
For the likes of Intel it is a good investment. The upfront costs of designing and manufacturing complex integrated circuits means an anthropologist is giving serious input to billion dollar, make-or-break business decisions. The writer has simply lost the capability of thinking - and that is the real failure of academia here.
Cloud and the future of work
But the cloud then makes it perfectly possible for our anthropologist chum – perhaps with a group of similarly skilled souls – to start touting such capabilities to a vast array of other, smaller businesses that can make effective use of them on a project basis, but cannot afford to employ such individuals full-time.
This is, of course, a work-model that it very familiar to many in the applications development and coding world. They use their skills to fulfil project-based contracts with businesses that need them for the duration of the project. Indeed, it is not unusual that they manage to work on more than one project at a time.
But this same model can, increasingly, be applied across the board. And the cloud is helping to make it happen. There are many tasks that can be digitised. Indeed, most office-related tasks already are, and therefore could easily be transferred to remote staff if enough companies realised that there is conceptually no difference between their Local Area Network and the internet.
It is quite likely that the mix of self-employed contractors and cloud services could serve to improve both productivity and output quality. Just two possible observations here: one is that the cloud and the applications have the makings of an in-built audit trail of worker activity – be they staff or contractor.
So there is no fundamental issue about businesses meeting compliance and governance regulations if that is required. They can tell who did a job, when it was done and, perhaps most important of all with external contractors, what other applications they were running and was data copied to them inappropriately.
The second is that there are plenty of business-specific social media tools now available – Salesforce Chatter and Tibco Tibbr being just two of them – through which to create rich and comprehensive communications environments between managers and the work teams, whether they are in the same office or on the dark side of the moon. Good, quick communications is often the key to improved productivity.
Understanding the potential of how the cloud and social media will change work practices is not new. For example, Raj Verma, when he was VP of Worldwide Marketing at Tibco back in 2012, said: “The concept of the corporation is about 400 years old. But before that we were all just contributors, doing the bits we could. And I think we are going back to that model. I wouldn’t like to speculate on how long it will take but I think the way young people will want to work will make it happen.”
A year earlier Jim Stikeleather, then Dell’s Chief Innovation Officer, observed:
It will be a fact of life that the new cohort (of `employees’) will play on the internet and view their social network as `co-workers’ like their office colleagues.
So the key issue confronting the future of work now is not so much what individuals such as the anthropologist do, but how businesses themselves square up to the challenges and possibilities.
There are now increasingly possibilities and potential in employing no one at all. Many businesses have got their heads round the idea of the virtual company in terms of physical location, but the idea of no employees is still perhaps a step too far for them.
Yet to have a business just based on exploitable skill sets, available as and when required – and at a cost that does not include all the surrounding costs of employing staff – would make sense on many levels, not least of which is budgetary management. But it also includes that most important capability, building in the agility to re-direct the business as quickly as possible to meet changes in markets and technologies.
And for the individuals there would a chance to spread their skills across a potentially global range of customers. In addition, at a time when there is a glaring disparity between national economic fortunes and personal income levels, it might allow individuals to build more genuine marketplace values for their skills and capabilities.