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
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
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
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 Amazon.com
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 Lulu.com 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
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 Jobster.com,
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.