Knowledge Piecework

Paying by the piece, or piecework, is an incentive mechanism that directly links worker productivity with reward. Labor issues swirl around use of piecework incentive systems, but most of those issues have to do with a lack of control over the price-per-piece and forced overtime without additional pay. Often when you think of piecework, you think of sweatshops making garments, shoes, or PC boards. Instead, imagine an industry where piecework is the norm, unemployment is nonexistent, and workers control exactly how much work they will do and at what price. And imagine that the only goods changing hand are electronic bits on a wire. Welcome to my vision of knowledge pieceworkers.

Knowledge workers are unique, in that they spend their days creating new information or transforming existing information. Think of the many tasks that we can nearly automate today, and you’ll find knowledge workers doing them. Language translation, for example, can be done automatically, as long as your standards are kept low. Creating a print-quality translation, however, requires an expert knowledge worker -- unless you are translating foreign-built consumer-electronic manuals into English.

For companies that need occasional translation service, however, the time spent finding a translator, confirming his or her reputation, and negotiating a price can be as costly as the service itself. Enter the knowledge piecework brokerage. A company needing a task performed would post a description and a proposed payment. Experts would retrieve the listing and then bid on the task. Once the client accepts a bid, the knowledge supplier performs the task. The client pays the brokerage to retrieve the finished product. The role of the brokerage in the process is twofold: bringing the client and supplier together and ensuring that each side meets their obligations.

Knowledge piecework fits easily into small organizations that can’t afford full-time knowledge workers. No longer does the small medical office have to hire a receptionist who is also skilled at transcribing medical dictation, nor do they need someone who understands how to complete every insurance agency’s forms. Small town courtrooms can outsource digital recordings to a pieceworker who specializes in court reporting. When a good proofreader isn’t on staff, a pieceworker can handle the task.

A more challenging worker to leverage is the technical knowledge worker. A good starting point is the technical troubleshooter. How many hours have we lost when Microsoft Outlook, for example, decides it will no longer store an Internet-mail password? I lost a few hours the other day on this issue tracking down a garbage identity tree in my registry when I would have happily posted a $50 bounty to a troubleshooter who had either the experience or the time to research the problem. On the supply side, technical suppliers could spend their day browsing the brokerage for questions to which they already have the answer, while picking up a few hundred bucks along the way. Everybody wins.

The toughest knowledge worker to harness is the software engineer, partially because of the size of the tasks involved and partially because of the difficulty specifying a programming task. I believe knowledge piecework will be most effective when the tasks are kept small and well specified: two features missing from most programming requirements. Certain tasks may still be good candidates for piecework. For example, a task such as "provide an example of a dynamic pie chart written in JavaScript," might be a reasonable request. Sure, such examples may be available for free on the Web if you search hard enough, but searching takes an unspecified amount of time, while posting a request is a fixed cost. Data scrubbing while transforming one database structure to another is another suitable piecework task. Integrating piecework with automated workflow solutions could further extend its value.

Like any new technology, knowledge piecework has some major challenges to overcome. You obviously put privacy and security at risk if you submit sensitive business documents for piecework. The public would cringe to think that their medical records are available for anyone to download. The biggest challenge, however, will be the same challenge that haunts managers of knowledge workers everywhere: specifying requirements. A pieceworker operating on thin margins will want to know exactly how much work is required to successfully complete a task, and the client will only want to pay for exactly what he needs. If you know the secret to successfully specifying the scope of a knowledge-workers task, please fill me in. In the meantime, I’ve got to beat Amazon’s Jeff Bezos to the patent office with my new e-business model. --Eric Binary Anderson has led projects at a number of enterprise software companies and is currently the senior architect at IBT financial, an Internet-based training company in Bend, Ore. Contact him at ebinary@columnist.com.