Future Focus: A Cloud of Workers

By Jennifer Schramm Mar 1, 2013
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0313cover.gifHuman resource professionals are at the center of a trend to use the cloud computing model as a way to organize work. Just as cloud computing entrusts computer operations to a remote service provider, a “human cloud” of workers can be assigned a range of work tasks via an online platform.

An academic team of global business researchers—Evgeny Kaganer, Erran Carmel, Rudy Hirschheim and Timothy Olsen—recently published their framework for the evolution of the human cloud in the MIT Sloan Management Review. The human cloud is currently only a small part of the global sourcing landscape. But the researchers posit that rapid development of such networks and platforms will have a significant impact on how companies organize work processes and access talent in the future. The human clould eventually could match potentially millions of individual contractors around the world with thousands of organizations both large and small.

Any development on this front is of critical interest to HR professionals because it could open up a vast source of skills and talent. HR professionals have identified finding and managing qualified workers to be among the most important challenges they face in the coming decade.

The human cloud has the potential to make skills-matching a more precis endeavor and to reveal to organizations of all sizes a world of talented “microsuppliers.” Content generation, sales and marketing, design and optimization, and research and development are among the tasks most commonly supplied by today’s human cloud platforms, according to the research.

The human cloud can give young, inexperienced, unemployed or underemployed individuals opportunities to gain experience and build portfolios, even in a tough job market.

But a major increase in the use of the human cloud could also decrease or eliminate jobs in favor of outsourcing and create downward pressure on wages. In addition, too many choices in the selection of workers to complete tasks could create an overly complex job- and task-assignment system and could discourage investment in training existing employees to perform new tasks.

For HR professionals, key questions are:

Would the splintering of jobs into micro-sourced tasks in the human cloud lead to an epidemic of micro-recruiting that would be difficult to manage and support?

How would quality control and compliance with company policy or legal parameters in hiring be ensured in such a vast network of splintered jobs?

Could working as an individual contractor in the human cloud prove so attractive to a new generation of workers that it could affect an employer’s ability to recruit?

At this stage, it is difficult to say if the human cloud will be a game changer for accessing and managing talent or merely an evolution in outsourcing. Whatever the outcome, HR professionals will be central to developing the business strategies that evolve as a result.

The author is manager of the Workplace Trends and Forecasting program at SHRM.

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