Harnessing the Power of the Human Cloud

[Tiny Briefcase was invited to speak at the Business Innovation in Changing Times Conference, hosted by the York Small Business Enterprise Centre at the Glenway Golf Course in Newmarket, on Friday, May 6, 2011. This post is based on that presentation. You can download a text version of the presentation here.]

‘The Cloud’, and its more specific cousin, ‘Cloud computing‘, are arguably two of the most overused buzzwords of the last 3 years. The terms have entered the mainstream lexicon through mass media advertising, giving rise to an array of differing, and sometimes conflicting, definitions. As one commenter in the blogosphere noted “There is a clear consensus that there is no real consensus on what cloud computing is.”

One of the best definitions we’ve found is this one from researchers at the University of California, Berkeley : “Cloud Computing” refers to both the applications delivered as services over the Internet and the hardware and systems software in the datacenters that provide those services.

For individuals and small businesses, the ‘Cloud’ itself encompasses Internet services we now take for granted (webmail and portals like Yahoo), to newer, more powerful and specific applications like Aviary, FreeAgent, and Basecamp.

When we talk about the ‘Human Cloud’, we refer to a virtual labour force that performs work without a physical presence. The Internet is used to to find, review, hire, manage, and pay for this labour. Your browser thus becomes the interface for completely managing an nearly-infinite pool of human resources. For most of us, the limitations of the Human Cloud are only what cannot be rendered digitally, and even then, global courier companies can overcome time and distance barriers for moving physical goods. As long as a task is structured properly, no job is too large or too small to complete in the Human Cloud.

Harnessing the Power of the Human Cloud

The Human Cloud vs. Outsourcing

Harnessing the Human Cloud is a form of outsourcing. This term, however, tends to have a negative connotation, mostly because the popular press has often used it interchangeably with offshoring. When you say ‘outsourcing’, the majority of people immediately think jobs lost to low-cost countries. People also tend to think outsourcing is unfair competition, or slave labour, or job stealing.

In our business, we spend a lot of times with clients who have limited budgets. Without access to the Human Cloud, they couldn’t afford to get the things done they need to succeed. Harnessing the Human Cloud is about competing, about staying agile and nimble in an age where speed matters. Many of us work in industries where a competitor can start up tomorrow and start taking business away. The Internet has been a catalyst to this new era of business, and if you are a small business, it can be daunting to try to compete without substantial money or resources to draw upon.

The Human Cloud helps level that playing field, literally bringing a world of resources to your business. Using those resources judiciously can give your business a powerful edge, and make the difference between thriving or merely surviving.

Advantages of the Human Cloud

There are 4 key advantages that come from harnessing the human cloud. The first is Flexibility. The ability to add expertise and resources when, where, and how you need them can be the difference between remaining competitive and being left behind. Large corporations have the luxury of pulling resources from other parts of the organization to meet demands. Small businesses all share a common challenge: they need to get things done, but don’t always have the ability, time, or people on staff to do them.

The ability to add expertise and resources when, where, and how you need them can be the difference between remaining competitive and being left behind.

In an ideal world, it would be great to bring someone onto your team to lead your social media program, or take charge of your administrative work, or run advanced analysis on your sales patterns. Few small businesses have that luxury. Using a virtual workforce allows you to add exactly the skills you need without having to hire someone full-time, or even part-time, when you can’t afford it.

The second advantage is Cost Saving.  One of the biggest gains that has come through the outsourcing market is the transparency in the cost of services, and the ability to get specific tasks done quickly and efficiently. There are literally thousands of good graphic designers who are happy to design a brochure for you for a few hours of work. This takes nothing away from your regular designer – if you have one, that is a great advantage! If you are running a lean budget, there are probably many small design tasks you’d like help with to make your company look more professional, but you’ve held off because of budget. The human cloud frees you from that restriction.

For higher-end work, there are many extremely talented professionals, some with over 20 years of experience, willing to spend 3 days helping you with your strategic, sales, or marketing plans for a third of what you would pay hiring a marketing consultant in person. More often than not, these experts are around the corner rather than across the globe. The human cloud has a large segment of people who have stepped back from the workforce, whether to raise a family, achieve better work-life balance, or simply retire from ‘active duty’. Outsourcing work allows all these groups to remain engaged on flexible terms that work with them, and ultimately, work well for you, too.

Speed of delivery is the third significant advantage of using the human cloud. When one of our clients needs a programming change to their website right away, we can literally get the task done overnight. Instead of hunting for recommendations for a good programmer, interviewing them, calling their references etc., you can hire someone in a matter of a few hours, and have them working the next day. For large tasks, like data entry or complex research projects, the human cloud gives you access to an almost limitless pool of talent in minutes, allowing you to get massive projects completed in a fraction of the time.

Which brings us to the last advantage of harnessing the human cloud, which is Transparency. In the traditional human resources model, your knowledge of an expert comes from their CV and their references, which aren’t the most objective sources of information.

In the online outsourcing marketplaces, you can see the quality of someone’s work in their portfolio, and read honest testimonials from prior clients. This transparency not only means you can find really good talent, but it also brings a high level of accountability to the contractor. You can, and should, monitor their progress as they work with you, and instead of being labelled a micromanager, you are actually fostering a good client-contractor relationship that helps the contractor deliver high quality work. The more explicit you can be, the better the outcome of the project.

What It Means for You

The Human Cloud is about time. It is time-to-market for a new product, time-to-execution on a client project, time-to-knowledge for gathering key competitor data. Most importantly, it is about time for yourself. Whether you are a business owner, entrepreneur, manager, or simply an employee in an organization, the Human Cloud can free your time.

The Human Cloud is about time. It is time-to-market for a new product, time-to-execution on a client project, time-to-knowledge for gathering key competitor data.

Imagine if you had an entire hour to exclusively focus on your work each day. 60 minutes without email, to-do lists, interruptions, or any other demands on your time. What would you do with that time? Maybe you’d use it to grow your business, conduct training, or reach out to new customers. Or maybe you’d simply go home an hour early, spend some time with your family, or spend it on yourself by working out, or volunteering.

Once you’ve recognized how valuable your time is, you need to look at the tasks that are adding the least value to your work. Look at all the tasks you do, not just in a day, but over a week or month. If you are in a small workgroup or company, you might be wearing multiple hats, with demands pulling you in different directions. Is everything you do creating value? If not, there are more efficient ways to get that work done.

The Human Cloud is about finding that efficiency. It is not a low-cost way to reduce your headcount, but a resource to draw upon to grow your business, to respond to competition, and to remain agile, innovative, and dynamic. It is about capturing your most valuable resource – time – and then using that time to focus on what matters most.


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