In The Devil in the White City, Erik Larson provides a fictionalized account of the architecture tasks (as well as serial killing) related to the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. Trains (a crucial technology in the modernization of business), enabled a distributed group of architects to participate in this world changing event (e.g., extension of the “raft” foundation enabling skyscrapers, the ultimate choice of AC v DC electricity).

Modern technology has enabled a thinning of physical organizational boundaries. I’d like to highlight three organizations that use modern technology infrastructure to enable creative organizational forms by reducing traditional space and time constraints. These examples may be useful in your own settings, or spur you to consider additional opportunities – which I hope you will share with the rest of us via the comments section below.

The Internet is likely a more valuable lever to most of us than are the trains mentioned above. Many modern jobs include work process/product that is amenable to electronic presentation/transport. The point is that technology can provide access to the market and reduce transaction costs, but that this is even easier to the extent that the work itself has a strong electronic component.

I met the principals of oDesk, my first example company, at the 2007 Web 2.0 Expo in San Francisco. The 2008 Web 2.0 Expo was last week and I was happy to see them again. They describe oDesk as “ online staffing marketplace and management platform that provides a convenient way to hire, manage, and pay individuals no matter where they are located.” “Certified professionals. Verified work.” What initially caught my eye was their “filmstrip view of work performed.”

In 1984 I started studying telecommuting. A common lament among managers was that they couldn’t manage without being able to see the work being done – and thus an increased emphasis on electronic monitoring (my term, not oDesk’s). I think the “The Work Diary” – that’s oDesk’s term – provides monitoring as a service versus a more punitive form of monitoring. (For more on the distinctions, see my chapter on monitoring entitled “Social and Technical Aspects of Electronic Monitoring: To Protect and To Serve,” paraphrasing the motto of the LA PD.)

oDesk Work Diary

oDesk uses the Internet as a foundation to enable virtual work. They bring together organizations and web/software developers, QA specialists, etc by providing a platform for hiring, managing, and paying professionals from around the world. They are happy to share their results (including a live “oConomy” tracker), so expect to see more about oDesk as I get to know them better.

Pixel Corps, a guild of media developers is my second example. As a “guild” they train both face to face and in a distributed form. They provide low cost licenses of expensive software to their membership via relationships with vendors. Their infrastructure allows for global distribution of the work – including to the developing world. They create on-line “challenges” to extend learning and allow the guild members to get experience working on group projects through “peer to peer learning”. Their website provides a clear description of their approach and goals

Production companies have already begun to use the Pixel Corps as a resource for staffing. As we grow and if we are successful in our training and networking, we could become the most direct route to work. Our growing membership alone offers a building network of freelancers able to trade work among themselves.

The Pixel Corps is not about simply collecting current computer artists... It’s about providing access to anyone interested in the field...Enthusiasts with little interest in a fulltime career, graphic artists migrating to greener pastures, visual effects artists keeping up with an ever-changing field, educators staying current with industry trends, Students augmenting their schooling, and those who can’t afford traditional schooling but still have the will and drive to enter the industry.

We are committed to collecting these individuals, training them to be the best in the world, organizing them to work more efficiently than any other group in the world, providing them with the benefits of collected effort and, together, taking over the industry... and while many will struggle in a changing economy and quickly shifting market, our members will drive the change rather than wait for it to come to them.

And this perfect statement regarding the social construction of this style of learning and work: “The easiest way to predict the future is to create it.”

Guilds are foundational to skilled work. The Oxford English Dictionary places the origin in medieval times. Pixel Corps has reinvigorated this organizational form based on the ability to learn and work virtually. But even televised sports coverage, something which requires the camera and the action to be physically together, has been enabled by Internet infrastructures.

At the Pacific Life Open in Palm Springs, CA, I had the pleasure of a seat directly behind the baseline, such a good seat that it was also where the main TV camera was set up on that court. After four hours of great tennis, I'd had ample opportunity to study the equipment and chat with the cameraman. What made the experience interesting in terms of this post was the European phone numbers on the camera which was being operated by a local freelance cameraman. Each piece of the equipment had a barcode and the name of the equipment rental company, in this case from the UK. A TV network had rented the gear, hired the contractor, and was then providing the video from this secondary court (often where the best action is) to other networks. Contracting was enabled via the Internet.

While this contracting approach to media has been around for decades, it is facilitated and spread via current technologies.

Questions: What other organizational forms are offered by broadly available technologies? What are the trade-offs and/or management shifts your firm has had to make to gain value from these new forms? What happens when you try to make a change to a new style of technology-enabled work, but do not make changes in how the work is managed?