Freelancers – wave of the future

By | November 22, 2012

The transcript of my BBC piece which was just broadcast. The original Reuters story from which it was drawn is here: Global army of online freelancers remakes outsourcing industry

A country like the Philippines is getting big into what is called BPO — which stands for business process outsourcing. At its most basic think call centers. At its highest end think lawyers drawing up documents for someone thousands of mile away, or trained medical professionals poring over xray scans on behalf of a hospital in Birmingham. 

It’s a great way to export skills without having to actually export the people doing the work. For a country like the Philippines, many of whose families are spread around the globe, this is especially poignant. 

But the Philippines is some way off that high end. 

Which is why what librarian Sheila Ortencio does is so interesting, and has so much potential. She works from her laptop on behalf of companies in Australia and the U.S. but her workplace is not some Dilbert style cubicle, her job is adding library data to ebooks, something that closely matches her training, and the money she earns is 10 times what she was getting  at the local library. And, best of all, she is working from home, with her daughters bouncing off the walls and two Pomeranians yapping wildly in the yard,. 

This is outsourcing of a different kind: some call it elancing, some call it crowdsourcing, some call it microwork. They are distinct terms, but they all fall under one basic umbrella: freelancers, working online, for clients many miles away, who are entrusting them with ever larger responsibilities and projects. All done via the web. 

Sheila, for example, signs up for a service like, lists her skills, experience and how much she charges, and then bids for contracts she thinks she could do, Companies posting the work go through the bids and choose one. The whole process is monitored online, up to the end payment. Odesk takes a cut. 

This has been around for a while, of course, but it’s only in the past couple of years that it’s really taken off. The reasons for this are varied, including better, cheaper, faster Internet, more people on both sides of the business simply ‘getting’ it, and an extra layer of services atop the existing intermediaries to tweak the marketplace to make it more efficient. 

Folk like Sheila find that clients like them so much they send more work their way than than they could handle, so she in turn recruits teams and monitors quality. And this is what’s intriguing about all this, and where I think this little niche economy could get big and interesting quite quickly. 

Because by morphing from librarian into manager and entrepreneur, Sheila not only helps herself, she also creates a pocket of innovation in her little corner of the Philippines. She’s converted 10 of her relatives into online freelancers, and countless neighbors. A local bank teller is on oDesk; everyone wants a piece of the action. She’s happy to help, because that’s her style and because the more people who do oDesk, the more business she can bring in. 

Eventually, it’s not far fetched to say these little pockets could turn into little Silicon Valleys — hubs of innovation and the ecosystem of businesses to support them, where skills and services become products and freelancers become startups. 

And, unlike Sheila’s parents, husband and siblings who had to go overseas to find a decent wage, this all could happen in a person’s backyard. It’s a long ways off, but maybe not as far as we think. 

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