Proposal for an Ethnographic Study of Outsourcing through oDesk

Jul 20

For nearly four years I’ve done a good deal of outsourcing for my software company. In the process I have employed people from a half a dozen countries, on both an hourly and project basis. For the last year and a half I have almost exclusively used oDesk to source and manage workers for my business. There are both economic and communication drivers that led me to prefer oDesk to its alternatives and to hiring directly. That being the case, I still heavily supplement the communication tools provided by oDesk to hire, train and manage my outsourced workers. Mechanics of Communication In this ethnographic study I’ll first explore the mechanisms provided by oDesk to facilitate the hire, train and manage process. I’ll then review the ancillary systems I developed to supplement oDesk and improve worker productivity. oDesk Worker Profiles oDesk worker profiles include a combination of several different types of information including worker provided details, oDesk test results, timing, duration and payments from past jobs and employer provided reviews. The amount of attention a worker gives to all of these information types directly impacts his prospects for getting hired. oDesk Interview Process Employers may post as many jobs as they want. Workers are then free to place bids on those jobs. When an employer is creating his job he can give guidance about the type of worker he wants, including the selection of thresholds related to the information on the worker profile. If an employer is interested in a proposal, he advances to the interview stage by sending a message to the worker. The interview then proceeds by way of messages through the oDesk site. Occasionally the interview communication process will expand to include the use of Skype or other chat or calling software. oDesk Messaging After hiring a worker, oDesk provides a messaging facility to enable communication. This functions very similar to email, but has the added advantage of retaining communications, including attachments, on the oDesk site. Changes to email or disputes about what was communicated can be proven through oDesk without relying on external tools. oDesk Work Diary oDesk provides a work diary tool that monitors the worker and tracks hours worked. It is installed on the workers...

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NLRB and the Human Resources Frame

Jul 18

In Reframing Organizations by Bolman and Deal, they present four frames through which a business can be viewed. One of those is the Human Resources frame, and its focus is primarily on the human needs of workers and how those needs impact the workplace. They propose two opposing viewpoints with respect to human resources, one arguing that workers are expendable resources and have a right to nothing more than a paycheck. The other viewpoint is that the human needs of workers must factor prominently into the decisions of the business. This includes a sense of meaning and purpose, comfort and well being. National Labor Relations Board The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) was established in 1933 to serve as a mediator between labor and business. Its focus was on enforcing the laws that enabled workers to unionize. Its charter was later expanded to include corporate aspects such as protecting employers against strikes when those strikes were not in the best interest of all parties. As might be expected, there are strong political divisions, roughly along party lines, with respect to the role of the NLRB and the scope of its authority. During the highly partisan years of President Obama’s first term and carrying in to his second, NLRB appointments have been a hot issue on capital hill. President Obama attempted to circumvent the standard process of senate approval of nominees, but this was later ruled unconstitutional. In recent weeks, the topic has come up again as a bargaining chip in senate negotiations related to the handling of filibusters. Social Impact With so much partisan posturing, it’s easy to lose sight of the social impact of these appointments and the NLRB. On the one hand, there’s a direct impact on the lives of the workers that belong to unions. With a weak economy, there are also real risks to fiscal well being if aggressive union policy makes it difficult for American businesses to function. The landscape of American employment is much different today than it was in 1933 when the NLRB was initially formed. Many businesses today are intensely focused on the needs and wants of employees in a market that increasingly requires highly skilled thought workers. With socialized retirement, increasingly...

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Innovation in Business

Jul 15

In 1837, Ralph Waldo Emerson delivered a talk to the Phi Beta Kappa Society, at Cambridge in which he espoused his vision for the ascendancy of education in our budding republic. He draws on some rich analogy in his arguments, and even admonishes that American universities must “aim not to drill, but to create”, lest they begin to “recede in their public importance, whilst they grow richer every year.” While books are one of the primary resources he cites to facilitate education, he gave the following caution: Books are the best of things, well used; abused, among the worst. What is the right use? What is the one end, which all means go to effect? They are for nothing but to inspire. I had better never see a book, than to be warped by its attraction clean out of my own orbit, and made a satellite instead of a system. I think often about the books I read and question my relationship to them. I have observed that when a book becomes popular (e.g. a best seller), its gravity increases. I have also found that when a book provides me with a very clear and and relevant answer to a problem I have, the remaining contents of the book tend to increase in gravity. A book’s popularity and apparent relevance are good cues, but they can also interfere with the development of our own systems, making us satellites to the ideas they present. Creation is the Goal Businesses need men and women, leaders and managers, who create. When considering what qualifies as innovation in business, it’s important to acknowledge that books, while essential, do not in themselves qualify as innovation. They should instead server to inspire us to create something new, novel and meaningful. In addition to books, there are numerous programs, seminars, certifications, etc. which, if adopted whole hog (so to speak), may put businesses at risk of becoming satellites rather than systems. Some examples might include: Six Sigma Scrum Off shoring Restructuring I’m not suggesting that there’s no benefit in adding off shore resources to increase capacity or implementing Scrum for software development. Those can be very successful approaches and can enable businesses in very creative and...

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Restructuring Microsoft a Struggle of Control vs Agility

Jul 13

A major buzzword in business today is Agile. More and more managers and CEOs want to embrace the fast moving, quick to adapt model that has fueled some of the most prolific growth in the companies of our day. Some examples of agile companies include Amazon, Google and a growing number of tech statups.  Amazon releases changes to their website for customers to use every 11.6 seconds. Google is now able to add changes to it’s live search index in a matter of hours for billions of sites around the world. Nimble startups can create a ready-to-sell product in a weekend with very little overhead. Time to Market With examples of very large companies able to move so quickly, it may be a surprise to some that Microsoft still releases a new version of its flagship product, the Windows operating system, every couple of years. One explanation may be that an operating system is more complicated than Amazon’s shopping system, but then Microsoft Window’s biggest competitor, Linux, releases several times a year: Starting in 2004, the release process changed and new kernels started coming out on a regular schedule every 2–3 months… Microsoft’s CEO, Steve Ballmer, has restructured the company several times during his 13 years at the companies head. Recently he announced yet another restructuring Microsoft. Previous restructurings at Microsoft had the aim of moving the company in a more agile direction. This was accomplished by granting autonomy to individual product groups. This restructuring appears to be going the opposite direction. The company said it will shift from largely autonomous product groups to a more horizontal structure While some of the rhetoric from Microsoft about this restructuring claims to improve their overall performance as a company, some analysts are wondering how that will be, since the proposed horizontal structure will require more discussion and meetings. Control vs. Agility Michael Gerber describes a business triad in which all business roles fall into one of three main heads: Entrepreneur, Manager and Technician. In the case of the more agile companies I cited above, there is a strong vision. The entrepreneurial clarity is communicated effectively to all employees. Managers and technicians alike understand the vision as its being passed down. Autonomous groups...

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Windows 8 Ignores Computing Culture

Jul 08

There has been a lot of press surrounding the release of Windows 8. Good and bad press are expected when a new product, especially one that deviates significantly from an established norm, is released to market. In the case of Windows 8, the amount of negative press may have taken Microsoft a bit by surprise. In May, the Wall Street Journal published an article highlighting the disconnect between Microsoft’s vision of computing and users expectations. Two notable disconnects include the developing gap in computing use cases and what appears to be a design by committee failure. Culture of Computing The culture of computing has evolved rapidly over the last three decades. This evolution had been spurred by both computing power and the cost for that computing power. As computing power increased, so did the quality of the graphics, audio and a broad range of uses that weren’t possible before. These include processing large amounts of data in applications such as spreadsheets and databases. The cost of that computing power has also come down significantly, which has created a consumer market where there was previously a majority business market. As high end computing made it into the hands of the consumer, the typical business use cases were replaced with entertainment and hobby use cases. Rather than spreadsheets, consumers wanted to listen to music and watch video. The ends to which that computing power was applied began to change significantly. The growing interconnectedness of the Internet meant that much of the computing power previously required on a personal computer was being moved onto servers, which allowed consumers to do more of what they wanted with less computing power and less specific computing know how. During much of this evolution, Microsoft’s focus on the desktop operating system maintained its focus on original business use cases and did very little with the emerging consumer use cases. Meanwhile, visionaries like Steve Jobs saw that most consumer use cases could be accommodated with very little computing power and a smaller screen. Along came the iPhone and iPad. A major shortcoming related to Microsoft’s design of Windows 8 is that it failed to recognize that the smartphone and tablet computing market serve a different set of...

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