WHY THIS MATTERS IN BRIEF
- With fully automated, and crowdsourced organisations already here the only type of organisation that noone seems to have been able to create yet is a Flash Organisation, but that could soon change
We’ve all heard about the rise of Distributed Autonomous Organisations (DAO), that don’t need any people to run them, such as Aidyia, a fully autonomous hedge fund on Wall Street, and a goal that Bridgewater Associates, the world’s largest hedge fund with $160 Billion under management is pursuing. we’ve also likely heard of crowdsourced organisations like Numerai. We also know that freelancing and the gig economy is on the rise. But so far no one has been able to create what could be considered the ultimate organisation of our age – a Flash Organisation that exists solely in the moment, completes its objective and then disbands into the ether, leaving nothing but products and pay checks in its wake – but that could soon change, especially as we move into the age of Blockchain and Smart Contracts.
After raising more than $22,000 on Kickstarter to make a storytelling card game called True Story, Daniel Steinbock, a designer and musician who started the project with three friends, had a simple plan for fulfilling the 750 orders – he would hire freelance designers and writers to make it, and his plans took an interesting twist when a group of researchers from Stanford University offered to build an on-demand organisation, a flash organisation for the project.
Steinbock agreed to use the beta version of the game as a test for their “Flash organisation” software, which automatically hires freelancers into roles, teams, and hierarchies that allow them to work together on a goal.
The goal, as one of the paper’s authors, Michael Bernstein, describes it, was to build a tool that made it feel “like if anyone with an internet connection could with a click convene an organisation around themselves to complete a project.”
Today thousands of companies already use what you might describe as “on-demand hiring,” and almost all of the jobs created in the US since 2005 have been in non-traditional work such as freelancing, temping, and on-call labour – something that’s often referred to as the “Gig economy,” which has made hiring everyone from Uber drivers to skilled professionals feel as easy as shopping on Amazon.
The Stanford researchers who were involved in the project, like many people, believe that these trends will one day inevitably lead to the creation of organisations that are “fluidly assembled and re-assembled from globally networked labor markets, and flash organisations are a model for how these systems might work.
In the past the team focused on creating small flash teams instead of organisations and those projects worked like an assembly line – when one step was completed, the system automatically hired a freelancer for the next step, on boarded him or her, and handed off the project. The Flash teams project successfully turned napkin sketches into functional web applications and recruited users to test them – all within a single day. But the system was rigid. It could only handle projects for which there were a pre-defined set of steps.
“You could assemble a car, but you couldn’t design a car,” explains Bernstein.
Now, in this case the card game was based on a popular podcast that its creators started in 2012, and making it would involve conceiving a design and logo from scratch, as well as writing short poems to go with around 160 story prompts.
Like the other projects the Stanford team selected to test flash organisations, making an app for EMTs and an online training portal for a large client services company, it was too complicated for flash teams.
To solve this problem, Bernstein and the research group, which also included Melissa Valentine, a Stanford management scholar, studied how organisations operate in the analog world, and they decided to use the organisational structure of movie production crews and disaster response teams as their model.
“[People on a movie set] might not know each other, but they’re very familiar with each other’s roles,” Bernstein says, “they know what actors and grips do and how they work with directors.”
Here’s how the teams Flash organisations program worked – team leaders started by creating a blueprint organisation, with roles, teams, and hierarchy, and then the software automatically filled those positions by pinging the job to qualified workers, and the first to accept were automatically on-boarded to the organisation. They were told what tasks they were responsible for, which roles in the organisation depended on their work, and which roles they depended upon.
They were also given instructions on how to change the organisational structure when needed by editing the blueprint or “source code” of the organisation.
If someone working on a task decided they needed to hire someone with a different sort of expertise in order to complete it, for instance, they then added that role to the organisation. If the change was approved through the chain of hierarchy, it was made and merged into the project, the right people were automatically hired, and the project continued.
For the True Story game, the first “flash organisation” hires were 12 poets who wrote short poems for each story prompt card – they were the first 12 who responded to an automatic message alerting them about the job within a curated pool of Upwork freelancers, and their poetry ranged wildly in quality and tone.
“A lot of them were just not great,” Steinbock says.
For example, for the prompt, “Past Life” one freelancer wrote:
Formally known as or Before now
Opposite of life after death
Reincarnation can only come from this
And for the prompt “Getting Hitched” another wrote:
Look at that rock
He said it was love
While for the Childhood prompt another submitted:
Wide eyes, bright minds
Scars, doors, deaf and mute
The fix? The team decided to hire a “head poet” to review and “integrate” the set and modified the code accordingly.
They also added teams to design the front and back of the cards, the packaging, and the logo, and when those teams had finished their work, the True Story team hired a testing lead, who proposed hiring other people to test the game, submitted this new branch of the organisation, and then activated the on-demand hiring of a team.
All in all a total of twelve teams worked on the project, and all together, the system hired 29 people to work on the project, on average within 13 minutes of posting a job, and they completed the project, plus an Android app on time and in budget within six weeks.
Although Flash Organisations was just a research project, some companies, including software development Gigster, website builder B12, and business outsourcing startup Konsus have since taken a similar approaches to managing teams, but typically, they have higher barriers of entry, such as coding tests, than the freelance marketplaces like Upwork.
“Flash organisations was intended to prove that complex projects could be accomplished using a crowd of online freelancers,” says Bernstein, who also believes that the system could make make work on platforms such as Upwork and Amazon’s outsourcing site Mechanical Turk better for their workers.
“Our goal is to bootstrap a better gig economy by creating an opportunity through growth through a complex project,” Bernstein says, “if all I can engage in is tasks, that will never happen. If I can engage in long projects that last a long time, then I think we have a prayer.”
To Steinbock, though, the process felt like it had the opposite effect.
“I imagined it as a bunch of freelancers all working on a project,” he says, “in practice, it was much more like Mechanical Turk in that it was a process that treats human beings as an assembly line, micro-outsourcing model.”
Steinbock for his part spent his time on the project filtering work from a bunch of freelancers and asking those who demonstrated some skill to continue iterating on their work.
“It felt a little weird,” Steinbock said, “to go through all these many submissions from people who were these faceless, nameless, nationless submitters, and then make these quick judgments.”
But in the end, he wasn’t impressed with the results.
“We couldn’t outsource our product vision to someone who grabbed a quick gig and didn’t have a deep understanding of the project,” he said, and while the initial intention was to make a beta version of the program Steinbock ended up hiring freelancers to remake the project entirely.
Bernstein concedes the system might work better for projects that value time efficiency and cost over quality, but the idea that the project turned human work into an assembly line was almost opposite of what the project intended.
“It’s interesting to reflect that it was possible for them to lead an organisation without getting to know workers closely – it feels like it indicates an area for future designs to improve upon,” he said.