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The Four Second Project


Would you ever hire someone to do just four seconds of work? In the past, of course not! In the future, you probably will. This jarring scenario gives us a warning about how the nature of work is changing.

You may be wondering what kind of work only takes 4 seconds. Here are a few examples: tagging a photo, typing in the total from a scanned grocery receipt, answering a two-question survey, or recording a name in your own voice. Of course, an entire project may involve thousands of photos, receipts, surveys or names. However, that project can be broken down into these tiny microtasks and in the extreme, an individual worker might do just one task.

This radical deconstruction of work is possible due to talent platforms like Amazon’s Mechanical Turk which allow you to farm out microtasks to an anonymous army of freelance workers who are paid just a few cents for each task.

This isn’t speculation: Amazon’s Mechanical Turk platform has half-a-million “Turkers” registered to do this kind of micro-work. It’s a specialized business, but a reasonably big one. You may be thinking that this isn’t relevant to you because none of your work can be deconstructed to micro-tasks. Here’s why I am interested, even though I’ll probably never use the platform myself: breaking up a project into thousands of four-second tasks seemed impossible; now it is being done. Whenever the impossible becomes possible, I pay attention.

Old ways versus new

In the today’s world the fundamental unit of work is a job and it typically takes 40 hours a week. When people have to commute to an office, packaging work into that 40 hour week makes sense—no one wants to commute for just a couple of hours work (let alone 4 seconds). However, as soon as work can be done electronically from someone’s home everything changes. A Turker might find an hour here and there in the day to do a whole series of micro-tasks; they make some money and its better than watching television.

As a leader you need to decide if it makes sense to have work done by employees in full-time jobs or deconstruct the work into pieces and ship it out to specialist free agents. Maybe you could get your assistant to do a PowerPoint presentation for you; but will they do it as well, as quickly and as cheaply as a freelance PowerPoint specialist? Often deconstruction makes sense.

Most organizations get some of their work done by farming it out to free agents, some get most of their work done that way, and some get all their work done by free agents. This last category entirely eschews the use of full-time employees. Knowing what and how much to farm out will be a central facet of a leader’s job in the years to come

Reconceiving work, Reconceiving HR

YIn the forthcoming book Lead the work, not (just) the employees: the future of work lies beyond employment (Wiley Sept 2015),which I co-authored with Dr. John Boudreau and Tower Watson’s Ravin Jesuthasan,we argue that talent platforms like Mechanical Turk make deconstructing and dispersing assignments to free agents sufficiently easy that it is going to transform how work gets done. Yes, some assignments will be done by traditional employees in traditional jobs; but a lot will be done by free agents working on projects, tasks or microtasks. For some assignments the performance of free agents—in terms of quality, timeliness and costs—will be so much better than employees that companies who are not skilled at deconstructing and dispersing work will be at a competitive disadvantage.

For HR this means coming to terms with the fact that a good percentage of your workers, maybe most of your workers, will not be employees. If HR thinks its job is about attracting, retaining and motivating employees then it will be missing half the game.


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