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 computer and takes screenshots every several minutes. It also measures the number of keystrokes and mouse movements during the period between screenshots, which it presents as a a measure of activity between screenshots. These diary images are made available to the employer, who can review them to ensure that workers are working on their project and following any instructions that were given.

Process Manager

The Process Manager is the first non-oDesk tool I cover. This is a software tool I created to capture processes and guide workers through the steps to the process. As opposed project management software, which deals with unique project details, the process manager helps workers through the same process over and over. This makes it easy to hire low skilled workers and train them with minimal direct investment. The Process Manager also benefits the hiring process, as evaluation tasks can be assigned to workers and their output measured.

Training Site

The Process Manager works in collaboration with several other tools to create a complete training site for all of my workers, including prospective workers. This allows me to segment training for the various functions within my business, such as technical programming and accounting, or creative and design concepts.

Kayako Helpdesk

I use the industry standard Kayako helpdesk software to facilitate communication between my clients and my support staff. This enables easy transfer of support requests and tracking of support levels and common solutions or events. This faciliates support requests, troubleshooters, knowledge base articles and news items.

Camtasia and Snagit

TechSmith creates software to record what happens on screen for both PC and Mac. Based on the old adage that a picture is worth a thousand words, a quick one minute screen captured video can often communicate more effectively than a much longer email or message. I have integrated the use of Jing into my hiring process, and my workers frequently send me screencaptured images and videos.

Google Chat and Skype

Free services like Skype and Google chat allow for real time communication. Both services provide smartphone apps for mobile use as well as video conferencing. Skype also provides a screen sharing mechanism which serves the same purpose as the TechSmith tools, but during a real time communication.


Timezones for outsourced workers can be a tricky problem to solve. Real time communication can be hit and miss and email or messages can have a round trip of days, rather than hours.

Culturally there are some factors that come in to play, such as the prevalence of US based call centers in some countries and populations of workers that are in the habit of managing sleep cycles to match the USA.

Challenges to Effective Communication

Typical workplace communication is peppered with non-work related, social conversation. Downtime from work related tasks and relationship building are an expected part of daily interactions. These types of spontaneous communications haven’t emerged among outsourced workers, either from employer to worker or between peer workers.

There are some subtle concepts that might easily be communicated relatively fast in an face to face setting. These can often be challenging to communicate electronically, in spite of all the technologies and tools that are available. Some concepts simply don’t accommodate an electronic format, such as cultural concepts that should drive decision making. Even with a common language, important cultural and social touch points are missing.

Timezone delays can impede progress and decrease productivity. The more established a worker is, the less the impact related to timezone differences for normal daily work.


Modern technology provides for a more productive remote workforce than any time in history. However, it falls short when it comes to subtle, cultural and social communication, leaving some important concepts without adequate coverage. Despite the pitfalls, the low cost and abundance of foreign workers available on oDesk (and other similar sites) enables some business models that previously were not possible.

One comment

  1. Tom Opdyke /

    Hi, Daniel,

    Your oDesk project just popped up on my G-alerts. I’m a contractor who handles media-screening and PR for oDesk.

    I think your ethnographic project is a cool idea. Would you mind sharing a copy of the assignment when it is completed?

    Tom Opdyke

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