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August 2006 – Snakes and planes

There may be some of you reading this today who are yet to hear of a film released this month called Snakes on a Plane. That is perfectly excusable. The film, starring Samuel L Jackson is a relatively low budget production based on not much more than its intriguing title and an unusual plot development.

The title says it all really. A witness protection officer (Jackson) has to escort, by plane from Hawaii, the sole witness to a triad killing to testify in a Los Angeles court. The triad boss meanwhile has secreted crates of deadly snakes on the aircraft with timers that will unlock and open their crates mid-flight. The idea is to unnerve the audience with a cocktail of phobias.

Unlike most films, some of its storylines and scenes were developed as work in progress relying on feedback from film enthusiasts who had been drawn to the project through internet forums featuring pre-production discussions.

It is the film industry equivalent of a corporate strategy meeting involving the board, the company’s employees and thousands of potential customers. The nearest corporate comparison would be the focus group feeding in to a product launch. But the external production input in to Snakes On A Plane began much earlier and shaped the final product to a far greater degree than a typical market research campaign would allow.

For many years film and theatre productions have challenged the way enterprise is structured, relying on networked freelance professionals for most of their staffing rather than a solid permanent workforce.

Now through the reach of the internet, projects can tap in to the creativity of a vast and often knowledgeable specialist audience. Not only is this audience prepared to inject ideas, its early involvement secures a growing interest in the marketplace for the final production.

In business terms we are witnessing the power of two comparatively recently observed phenomenon – The Tipping Point, recognised in Malcolm Gladwell’s book bearing the same title, and The Long Tail, the title of a newly published book by Chris Anderson, the editor-in-chief of Wired Magazine.

The internet buzz about Snakes On A Plane has been sufficient to propel interest in the production beyond the tipping point where interest in a product or project takes on a life of its own.

The conduit for this activity, however, is the internet grapevine, now sophisticated enough to reach special interest groups and individuals wherever they may exist on the planet. Cheaply available broadband coupled with the ability to segment the marketplace to a highly refined degree has melded the economy of scale with a new economy of reach.

Scale and reach have enabled the growth of internet-based research resources such as Wikipedia that has relied almost entirely on a free-for-all open source principle where people with relevant knowledge have created a living encyclopaedia. Open access has led to some abuses, particularly be mischief makers seeking to plant misleading information but the site remains an icon of voluntary web-based co-operation.

Traditional businesses need to learn from these developments. How is it that a venture such as Wikipedia can leverage knowledge and skills of more than 1m contributors without paying a penny when the shareholders of profit-making enterprises elsewhere in the publishing industry are shouldering pay bills that usually comprise the biggest corporate overhead.

Some businesses such as and MySpace and Google have learned how to harness the input of voluntary contributors. In turn individuals with special interest offerings are learning how to exploit the marketing potential of the internet, for marketing, publishing and sales. Sifting technologies such as metatagging and keyword recognition are enabling special interest groups to be serviced by their providers.

The message in Chris Anderson’s book is that businesses that in the past have
concentrated on the mass market at the front of the classic distribution curve are beginning to lose market share to those who can exploit those further down the tail of distribution, hence his reference to the “long tail”.

This is bad news for the media-fed world of celebrity and hyperbole and good news for minority interests that have been ignored in the past. It means that publishing sites such as can make small profits from every transaction they host that can add up substantially when multiplied across this broad and diverse universe customers and providers.

How is this market growing and what does it mean for employers? It appears that the tail is thickening, possibly representing a backlash against the kind of homogeneity that has come to characterise the high street. A study by ACNielsen in 2005 found more than 724,000 Americans reporting that eBay was their primary or secondary source of income. In the UK it found that some 68,000 cottage industries were depending on the site for at least a quarter of their income.

In the next 10 years I believe this source of informal employment will grow exponentially as the market for buyers and sellers of work learns how to link home-based workers with home-focused services.

One such service, Slivers of Time*, based at Newham Borough Council in London, has been set up as a partnership of technology providers, employers, regeneration bodies and government, backed by £500,000 of development capital from the e-innovations unit in the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister.

Slivers of Time is working as a kind of employment brokerage between employment agencies and people who may have a few hours to spare at various times in the week but who, because of lifestyle or family commitments cannot undertake a full-time job.

Slivers of Time director Wingham Rowan, says a study by Accenture has identified some 13.7m people in the UK who could be available to sell their time undertaking short-duration jobs in their localities.

A further study by Oxford Economic Forecasters showed that no more than a five per cent take up among this target group could save £400m a year in benefits claims. One advantage of the system for tax and benefits authorities is that the system tracks people’s working hours in work that might otherwise be lost to the black economy.

Job agencies are kept in the loop since they will be responsible for ensuring that people have the right skills and qualifications. It is likely that the system will succeed or fail on its ability to unite people with work that can be easily undertaken not far from their homes.

Typical buyers, says Rowan, are employers such as caterers, retailers, local authorities, housing associations, healthcare providers, logistics companies and offices that need sporadic top-up workers. Pools of local sellers, he says, can be cheaply inducted by a particular employer creating trained workers to be turned on and off as required.

Rowan says initial trials have been promising and hopes to extend the service across the UK. This kind of service, coupled with new job sites such as, a business I featured in May are beginning to change the market for work. So far the changes are relatively small scale but the internet is creating a democratisation of the marketplace putting innovators, producers, sellers and buyers together in ways that are challenging traditional business and employment structures. Slivers of Time and Snakes On A Plane are trying to ride the crest of these changes. Whether they succeed remains to be seen.

©2006 Richard Donkin - all rights reserved