A marketplace for work and problem-solving

Sun, 23 Mar 2014

I’ve got a lot of smart friends with valuable skills.  But, in today’s difficult job market, a lot of them have, at one time or other, been in a position of wanting work.  To some extent, they want work so they can earn money, but even more, they want work so they can keep up existing skills and learn new ones, gain experience, and feel productive and worthwhile.  That isn’t to say they would take absolutely any job - they know that some jobs will negatively impact their long-term potential.  But, they’re certainly not unwilling to work hard.

I also see employers struggling to find skilled workers capable of doing the job, and organisations and individuals that would love to free up their time by delegating work.

So, I’ve been thinking about some sort of ebay for talent, which I’ll explore in more detail in my next blog.  But first, I want to consider several broad issues that any solution is going to have to comes to terms with.

Should it be paid?

The most popular models I’ve seen that allow people to solve each other’s problems (e.g. stackoverflow.com, en.wikipedia.org, wilmott.com) have all refused to pay contributors.  These sites recognise that reputation, experience, and even just the sense of having helped, are all valuable motivators, and can lead to a better culture and more genuine assistance than might occur if financial payments were introduced.  I don’t disagree with that, but worry that by not paying, you limit your contributors to those that already have an income, and you force those that do need an income to get potentially less valuable jobs.  So, I’m inclined to propose a solution that does offer payment.  (Unfortunately, one downside of offering payment is that you have to think about tax and legal implications, but most people would rather earn money and pay tax than not!)

Difficulty in defining non-trivial problems

One of the toughest parts of my job has been specifying tasks for others to do, or problems for them to solve.  Sure, if it is a repetitive task that I’ve done before and want repeated, then I can specify instructions.  But if I'm trying to achieve something new, it is difficult enough to know what I want done, let alone what level of detail I have to give.  There isn’t a clear distinction between “the analysis that goes into specifying the problem” and “the action of solving the problem” and “determining if the problem has been solved”.  As a result, I often find it quicker to just solve the problem myself, deciding what the problem is as I go along, rather than specifying the problem upfront and then handing it to someone else.

I know I need to get better at this, and just as using Google has taught me to write effective searches, having a system for assigning problems would improve my ability to specify them.  And even if some problems are always going to be too ambiguous to assign, or have solutions too difficult to assess, we should still consider this system where it does work.

Difficulties in deciding what you are allowed to assign

The was a big story last year about a developer who had been outsourcing his entire job to a developer in China.  Interestingly, when I retell this story, some people I speak to think the man should be rewarded for his clever thinking (the quality of the work done was very good), while others think he should have been fired (which he was).

My view is that I’d at least like companies to talk about what you can and can’t delegate - after all, almost workers at some point talk about their work with outsiders in the hope of finding a solution to a problem.  If would help if we could identify the levels of confidentiality - things we can freely discuss, things we should require some form of agreement to discuss, and things we must never discuss.

As well, a workplace where people can outsource would force us to get better at measuring performance - assessing people on hours worked doesn’t make sense (even without outsourcing), but there will always be a lot of work that can't be assessed purely on defined outcomes.


It seems logical to assume that contractors are less loyal than permanent employees.  But, I’m not sure it is true.  If by loyalty we mean caring about the employer’s short and long-term best interests, then I’d say I’ve seen good loyalty from employees, contractors and consultants.  Enough people realise that it is generally in their own long-term interest to care about the short and long-term best interests of others.   If loyalty includes only caring about the interests of one organisation, then I think that aspect is on the way out, and for good reason -  workers increasingly want to balance caring for multiple causes, including themselves, their family, their network and the community.

We always need to be aware that a worker may not care about an employer’s best interests, but I don’t believe a market for short-term problem solving would prevent the right kind of loyalty.

I'd be interested in hearing any thoughts, questions, ideas any readers have, and I'll try to give them some thought in my next blog on this idea.