Lead the Work: How Many People Are REALLY Working For You?


The largest employer in the world is Walmart with 2.2 million employees. There are only three companies with more than 700,000 employees (Sinopec and Hon Hai Precision Industry round out the list), and if you only count regular full-time employees.

Appirio (the parent company of Topcoder), is a company with 700 employees worldwide, yet it boasts more than 700,000 “community members” working on more than 1,500 projects, through “cloud solutions.” It was lauded in 2014 as a best place to work by ITPRO in the United Kingdom, based on a survey of its 700 employees.

Yet, does “working” at Appirio mean being one of its 700 regular full-time employees, or does it mean participating in Topcoder’s cloud-based design projects? What’s more important to Appirio, being the best place to work for 700 employees, or the best place to work for 700,000 non-employees that Appirio’s Topcoder platform connects with its clients?

You may think, “That’s Apprio’s problem, but it doesn’t affect me. I will focus on being the best place to work for my regular full-time employees and just leave the cloud-based work and free agents to Appirio.”

Talent chooses you as much as you choose them

Suppose you tap Topcoder’s network to develop vital software applications for your company. Does it matter to you if those workers find your company and its projects attractive and motivating? Does it benefit you to try to be a best place to work for those workers, not only for your regular full-time employees?

Some of the world’s top programmers do all their work through Topcoder, and they can choose what projects to work on. These workers communicate with each other about how interesting your projects are, and how your regular employees relate to them when they work on virtual teams together.

Topcoder’s talent chooses your company just as much as you choose them. Leading the work increasingly means leading in cooperation with platforms like Topcoder. If you focus on leading only your employees, you not only overlook a potentially significant part of your workforce, but you also will miss seeing the laboratories where advances in the workplace happen first.

Even if you are not a client of Topcoder or another platform, your workers will eventually be affected by what such platforms are learning and executing when it comes to work, organization, and rewards.

As talent platforms like Appirio’s Topcoder perfect cloud-based work solutions, they offer alternatives to regular full-time employment not just for you but for the workers you need. Your organization starts to look like a mix of regular full-time employees and platform-provided workers that are not employees of anyone. Your ratio may not be as high as Appirio’s, where there are 100 times the number of cloud-based non employee workers to regular full-time employees, but your ratio will very likely be much higher in the future than it is now.

In part, that’s because platforms are ever more sophisticated marketplaces for you to find and employ free agents to do work that might previously have required regular employees. As disruptive as this marketplace evolution will be, there is a more subtle, but potentially even more significant, development for leaders getting work done.

5 questions to ask about your organization

Talent platforms are evolving from only offering you a marketplace to find free agents for a specific task like coding or logo design, to increasingly providing a platform to organize and optimize the work of a complete project like application development or a web-based marketing campaign, and they increasingly solve issues such as worker rewards, development, evaluation, trust, and governance.

Talent platforms are evolving to be much more than marketplaces, and that means they will disrupt and redefine a much larger domain of work in all sorts of organizations. Increasingly, your job as a leader will be to optimize not just the mix of free agents and your regular employees to do tasks, but to optimize how you design the work itself.

Being the best place to work for free agents will increasingly mean not just finding them and assigning them a task, but designing the work itself to optimize their role.

In this chapter, we describe several leading talent platforms: Upwork, Tongal, Topcoder, and MTurk. Much has been written about these platforms, but here we focus on a particular goal: to illustrate what they can teach you about leading through the work, beyond regular full-time employees. \

We do that through five (5) questions that you can also ask about your organization:

  1. What is the offering to our customers?
  2. What is the work?
  3. Who are the workers?
  4. How do we engage the workers?
  5. What’s the future?

Finding the optimal workplace combination

As a leader, pay close attention, because these platforms have long faced the issues that you will soon face in your own organization.

The platforms have the advantage of learning from the work experience of hundreds of thousands of workers, millions of work transactions, and thousands of projects that often involve subtle and clever ways to optimally combine free agents and regular full-time employees.

These platforms have a learning laboratory that is far larger and more diverse than any organization’s cadre of regular full-time employees. They offer important object lessons for leaders in all organizations, who will increasingly get work done through just such optimal combinations.

Excerpted with permission of the publisher Wiley from Lead the Work: Navigating a World Beyond Employment by John W. Boudreau, Ravin Jesuthasan, David Creelman. Copyright 2015 by John W. Boudreau, Ravin Jesuthasan, David Creelman. All rights reserved. This book is available at all booksellers.