As any engineer will tell you our brains are always working out the best path to accomplish something, even those problems that are far outside of our area of expertise. The world to us is a giant set of problems just waiting to be solved and our minds are almost always ticking away at some problem from the most trivial quibble to those larger than life. Some ideas stick around longer than others and one that’s been plauging me for the past year or so has been the one of the 9-5 work day that nearly every work place adheres to. The roots of the problem have their roots back in the industrial revolution but todays technology makes most of the issues irrelevant. Coupling this with the massive duplication of resources required to enable these old ideals it seems almost inevitable that one day we’ll have to transition away from them if we are progress as we have done for the past few decades.
The idea at its core is one of decentralizing our workforce.
Right now the vast majority of workers commute daily to their place of work. Primarily this is because the organisation hosts resources required for them to complete their work, but there’s also the norm that you have to be at work to be working. In the traditional business sense this is true as there was no way that a company could provide the required infrastructure to all its employees in order for them to be able to do their work outside company premises. However the advent of almost ubiquitous Internet connectivity and organisation’s reliance on IT to complete most tasks means that nearly everyone who’s job doesn’t require physical labour could do their job at home for a fraction of the overhead of doing the same work on company premises. The barrier for most companies is twofold with the first being one of investment in additional (and removal of current) infrastructure to support remote workers. The second is one of mentality as traditional management techniques struggle with producing sound metrics to judge employee’s performance.
For established organisations the transition to a highly remote workforce can be rather painful as they already have quite a bit invest in their current infrastructure and most of this will go to waste as the transition takes hold. Whilst the benefits of being able to downsize the office are quite clear they usually can’t be realized immediately, usually due to contracts and agreements. Companies that have successful remote workforces are usually in a period of radical reform and this is what drives them to rethink their current work practices. The pioneers in such moves have been the IT focused companies, although more recent examples in the form of Best Buy and Circuit City in America show that even large organisations can realise the benefits shortly after implementation.
Designing metrics for your employees is probably the biggest sticking point I’ve seen for most workers looking to go remote. I’d attribute this to most managers having come through the ranks with their previous managers being the same. As such they value employee time on premises far more highly than they do actual work output, because most of their decisions are done by the seat of their pants rather than with research and critical thinking. That may sound harsh but it is unfortunately common as most managers don’t take the time to dive deep into the metrics they use, instead going by their gut feeling. Workers who aren’t present can’t be judged in such a fashion and usually end up being put down as slackers.
This idea is primarily why I support the National Broadband Network as ubiquitous high speed Internet to the vast majority of the population means that the current remote worker’s capabilities would be even more greatly enhanced. No longer is a workplace big enough to accommodate your entire team required when the majority of your workforce is there virtually. HP pioneered this kind of technology with their HALO which was designed around removing the stigma around telepresent workers and the results speak for themselves.
At the heart of this whole idea is the altruistic principle of reducing waste and our environmental impact, improving worker happiness and possibly reusing existing infrastructure to solve other problems. Right now every office worker has 2 places of residence and neither of them are used full time. This means that a large amount of resources go to waste whenever we’re at work or not and decentralizing the workforce would eliminate a good portion of this. Couple this with reduced transport usage and the environmental impact would be quite significant. Additionally underused infrastructure could easily be converted into low cost/government housing, relieving the pressure on many low income earners.
Maybe its just my desire to work in my own home on my own time that drives this but the more I talk to those people who can do their work wherever there’s an Internet connection the more it makes sense as the future of the bulk of our workforce. The body of knowledge on the subject today suggests that there’s far more to be gained from this endeavour than what it will cost but until there’s a massive shift in the way managers view a decentralized workforce it will unfortunately remain as a pipe dream. Still with the barrier to entry of making your own self sustaining company being so low these days we may just end up with not only a decentralized work force, but a completely decentralized world.
Over the past couple months I’ve taken upon myself to get more familiar with the broader world of technological startups, mostly because I’m always on the lookout for new APIs that I can aggregate into Geon. More recently however I’ve started to notice that there’s a big trend towards making any application location aware and there’s an increasing amount of social networking applications that use places and locations as their main selling point. The current hot thing appears to be apps that let you “check-in” at locations, say your local coffee shop or cinema, and give you rewards based on that. It fits in quite well with the formula I came up with for successful social networks (sense of belonging + wanting to share with community + competition element = win) so whilst I can’t see myself using the service I can understand why they’re becoming more popular. Of course with so many of the services starting to come out of the wood works some obvious duplication efforts become apparent, namely that they all roll their own location databases.
Now from both a business and technical point of view this makes quite a lot of sense. Whilst it’s nice to rely on other people’s services to provide you with data it also poses a risk, especially if that service is made available to you free of charge. Usually you’ll be on the rough end of the stick in terms of usage agreements and they’ll absolve themselves of any responsibility should the service go down. With bigger players though you can usually count on them being fairly reliable (I consider most Google services as 6 Sigma, for example) but when your core business relies on services provided by others you have to ensure that you have strict service level agreements with them or you put yourself at quite a large risk. Keeping the service internal, whilst increasing your own risk profile, at least grants you control so that any outages can be dealt with more effectively.
Still any engineer will see duplicative systems as wasteful if they’re not specifically being used for redundancy. The recent explosion in location aware applications hasn’t gone un-noticed and the duplicative efforts managed to catch the eye of one journalist:
Here is the problem: These efforts at creating an underlying database of places are duplicative, and any competitive advantage any single company gets from being more comprehensive than the rest will be short-lived at best. It is time for an open database of places which all companies and developers can both contribute to and borrow from. But in order for such a database to be useful, the biggest and fastest-growing Geo companies need to contribute to it.
I put this suggestion to Foursquare CEO Dennis Crowley the other night at a party, and he was enthusiastic about the idea. Foursquare is building up its own comprehensive database of places, which it calls “venues,” through its users who add places they want to check into, if they don’t already exist. Foursquare matches their GPS lat/long coordinates to its database of venues (businesses, points of interest, even people’s homes). Later I followed up by email and asked Crowley, “Isn’t the quality of your places directory, built by your users, a competitive advantage?
He makes a good point, it would be quite advantageous for many location aware applications (mine not so much) if there was an open database that contained a list of places worldwide. Whilst I’m not aware of a similar call for geolocation services (translating co-ordinates into names) the service GeoNames seems to embody the exact idea Schonfeld is talking about, albeit for a different kind of service. For anyone looking to use such services GeoNames provides a very quick way of integrating them into your project and if I hadn’t run into them earlier I may well have ended up spending a fair chunk of cash to get the same functionality (or signed my life away to Bing Map Services, which I’ve already done in part). Still the guys over GeoNames have been repeatedly bitten by those looking to make use of the service and I can’t help but feel the same thing would end up happening to those who would build the database of places. They’d provide a service we’d all love and enjoy, but they wouldn’t be getting a lot of tangible benefits as a result.
Schonfeld makes the point that any small advantage of a place database that has an edge over their competition doesn’t really give a company any advantage. To a point that’s true, since most of the legwork has already been done and it wouldn’t take a dedicated programmer more than a few weeks to replicate a similar database. Still anyone who goes ahead and makes this open database wears all the implementation and operational costs as well. They do gain a decent amount of power by being a central authority for something (which screams Google to me) but it will all come down to whether people co-operate or not. The trend towards an open web makes me think that they probably would, but it’s still a risk.
Right now I don’t envisage Geon actually requiring such a database, mostly because it’s focused on information + location and not so much if that happens to be from a bar or convention center. If such a thing would be implemented I’m sure I could augment the data stream with some place information to give the information a bit more context but it’s currently in the same bucket as the weather for a given location. It’s another cool thing to add on but the audience that I’m targeting probably won’t need it (and it will just add to the noise).
It’s really just a modern version of the tragedy of the commons and the solution is not much different than it was back then. I’m sure everyone would cry foul if the first such implementation came with a price tag for access but unless a large company wants to play the good patron to the rest of the world such central resources will be slow to come about, if ever. Any startup making use of such data hasn’t seemed to have any trouble coming up with their own dataset and it appears that will be the situation for a long time to come.