The pop-up employer: Build a team, do the job, say goodbye

At first glance, the organisation chart for the maker of True Story, a card game and mobile app in which players trade stories from their daily lives, resembled that of any company. There was a content division to churn out copy for game cards; graphic designers to devise the logo and the packaging; developers to build the mobile app and the website. There was even a play-testing division to catch potential hiccups.

Upon closer inspection, the producer of True Story wasn’t really a firm: The workers were all freelancers who typically had never met and, perhaps more striking, the entire organisation existed solely to create the game and then disbanded.

True Story was a case study in what two Stanford professors call “flash organisations” — ephemeral setups to execute a single, complex project in ways traditionally associated with corporations, nonprofit groups or governments.

The professors, Melissa Valentine and Michael Bernstein, contend that information technology has made the flash organisation a suddenly viable form across a number of industries.

And, in fact, intermediaries are already springing up across industries like software and pharmaceuticals to assemble such organisations. They rely heavily on data and algorithms to determine which workers are best suited to one another, and also on decidedly lower-tech innovations, like middle management.

But to the extent that temporary organisations replace permanent ones, they have the potential to add to the economic uncertainty that workers must increasingly contend with.

Temporary organisations capable of taking on complicated projects have existed for decades, of course, perhaps nowhere more prominently than in Hollywood, where producers assemble teams of directors, writers, actors, costume and set designers and a variety of other craftsmen and technicians to execute projects with budgets in the tens if not hundreds of millions.

In principle, many companies would find it more cost-effective to increase staff members as needed than to maintain a permanent presence. The reason they do not, economists have long argued, is that the mechanics of hiring, training and monitoring workers separately for each project can be prohibitively expensive.

But Valentine, who studies management science, and Bernstein, a computer scientist, note that technology is sharply lowering these costs. “Computation, we think, has an opportunity to dramatically shift several costs in a way that traditional organisations haven’t realised,” Bernstein said. “It’s way easier to search for people, bargain and contract with them.”

There is some evidence that the corporate world, which has spent decades outsourcing work to contractors and consulting firms, is embracing temporary organisations. In 2007, Jody Miller, a former media executive and venture capitalist, was a co-founder of the Business Talent Group, which sets up temporary teams of freelancers for corporations.

“We’re the producers,” Miller said. “We understand how to evaluate talent, pick the team.”

Some of Miller’s biggest clients are in the pharmaceutical industry, whose economics are not unlike Hollywood’s in that it is heavily project-based and a small handful of blockbusters drive most of the profits. Business Talent Group teams frequently work on the kickoff of a new drug — devising the strategy for reaching out to patient groups, journalists, doctors and insurers — and help pry open new markets for existing drugs.

Similar intermediaries have sprouted in other industries. In the tech world, there is Gigster, a platform founded in 2014 that knits freelancers together into software-building teams, so that an entrepreneur with no technical know-how can hand off an idea and get back a fully functional app in months or a prototype in weeks.

In entertainment, there is Artella, a platform that helps freelance animators, sound designers and other talent form teams that produce animated features. Artella, by also providing the costly technical tools that support animation, may one day allow freelancers to compete with the major studios.

Valentine and Bernstein wanted to take the concept further. They created a platform, Foundry, in which the process of assembling and running a temporary organisation could be automated, without so much as a phone call.

Each project began with a project leader and an organisation chart. To fill each role, Foundry emailed a group of qualified workers on Upwork, a huge freelancer site, which generated pools of candidates. Once the workers were hired, something Foundry could do automatically, they were assigned tasks and communicated through Slack, the messaging software. The organisation chart could be altered as needed, generating new roles and new workers.

“One of our animating goals for the project was, would it be possible for someone to summon an entire organisation for something you wanted to do with just a click?” Bernstein said. In addition to True Story, the two professors enlisted one team that built an app to help emergency medical technicians communicate with hospitals, and another that built a web tool to help a consulting firm run workshops for clients.

The professors recently presented their research at a prestigious computer-science conference.

Three lessons stand out across the flash-type models. First is that the platforms tend to be highly dependent on data and computing power. Roger Dickey, a co-founder of Gigster, says every member of each team assembled by the company reviews every other member, generating 20 to 30 data points per person per project. Artificial intelligence then looks for patterns and helps the company figure out how best to build future teams.

© 2017 The New York Times News Service

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