by Rod Collins, Innovation Sherpa at Salt Flats
While the technology revolution continues to transform daily living at a remarkable clip, we are suddenly becoming aware of possibilities that few of us could have imagined even a few years ago. Driverless cars, 3D printers, sophisticated robotics, artificial intelligence, and virtual reality are all early stage applications that seem destined to alter the world of work as we have known it. There are some futurists who portend that the current arc of technology is highly likely to rapidly eliminate many, if not most, jobs far more rapidly than any of us are prepared for. For example, as the founders of Google continue to make progress in developing driverless cars, we can envision a world where bus and taxi drivers will become as anachronistic as the long-gone elevator operators. With its recent beta testing of its first “checkout free” brick-and-mortar grocery store in Seattle, Amazon is giving us a preview of the retail store of the future where legions of checkers will be displaced by a network of sensors that will automatically charge us for our purchases as soon as we leave the store. And for those of us who prefer online purchasing, drones rather than couriers will be delivering goods to our doors. With all these developments looming on the horizon, it’s not surprising that many workers are anxious about what technology and globalization may mean for their future employability.
The Great Challenge
One of the great challenges—perhaps the greatest challenge—that we face in a digitally transformed world is finding new ways to create economic value for those whose jobs are eliminated by digital automation. One of the lessons of history is that, once automation eliminates certain types of jobs, they become, for all practical purposes, permanently extinct. And while many economists and business observers have argued this is a good thing because in eliminating lower paying menial jobs, automation often creates higher paying knowledge worker jobs, this is of little comfort to the increasing numbers of knowledge workers threatened by rapid advances in artificial intelligence. If Watson can easily defeat the two most successful Jeopardy players of all time, how will they be able to compete in a digitally transformed workplace? Perhaps the answer is to rethink the fundamental structures of work. And that’s exactly what the innovative start-up company Stepes is doing by giving us a glimpse into the future of work and showing us how the very forces that are eliminating jobs may be creating new and very different ways of working.
Stepes is the world’s first chat-based translation app. First introduced by CSOFT International in 2016, Stepes is a leading-edge solution to a problem that is becoming increasingly more relevant in a hyper-connected global marketplace: rapid language translation. While there are several mechanized translators on the market, these automated applications tend to work best when the translation task is a single word or a simple phrase. However, most business applications, especially customer-facing translations, are more complex tasks requiring an understanding of linguistic context and cultural nuance. Linguistic interpretation can be risky business because companies who get lost in translation can pay a heavy price for their cultural dissonance. According to Carl Yao, CSOFT’s Vice President of Global Strategy, “inaccurate translation will not only deliver poor customer service but will also inevitably result in loss of business.”
An Innovative Working Model
In designing Stepes, Yao and his team recognized that businesses today need a translation capability that’s fast, accurate, and affordable. Building an operational capacity that delivers all three elements of this value proposition is the elusive mission. While mechanized translators are fast and affordable, they’re not necessarily accurate. And while legacy translation services are accurate and relatively affordable, they are often delivered by bureaucratic organizations that are not capable of real-time delivery. Until recently, legacy services were the industry norm because traditional markets had lower expectations about speed of delivery. The sudden emergence of a hyper-connected world where all computers and mobile phones are part of a single Internet means that information can be moved and processed at incredible speeds. This network effect has radically changed basic customer expectations about speed. Fast delivery is no longer a matter of weeks or days; it’s now about minutes and seconds.
Stepes’s innovative working model solves the elusive mission by leveraging the network effect across the entire world’s population of multi-lingual speakers. Instead of being limited to the current cohort 250,000 professional translators, the Stepes model can rapidly access a resource pool of 3.6 billion people—the number of people worldwide who speak two or more languages. This exponential leap in the population of available linguists not only increases the quantity of translators, it also opens new possibilities for higher quality translations. James Davidson, CSOFT’s Senior Business Development Manager, points out, “If you need a highly technical medical translation, it could be done by a doctor on her lunch break.” Yao adds, “The Stepes operating model works very much like Uber. People can access the service through an app on their mobile devices, describe the work that needs to be done, agree upon a price, have the service provided in real-time, and rate the quality of the translator when the job is complete.”
Expanding Value Creation
By using an Internet platform to aggregate every multi-lingual person in the world into a single resource pool, Stepes is magnifying economic value creation by accelerating the expansion of an existing market and innovating new ways for people to work and be paid for their efforts in these widened markets. Market expansion is a natural consequence of coming up with a practical solution for delivering all three dimensions of the translation value proposition. We saw a similar expansion when Wikipedia came on the scene and provided instant access to the world’s largest encyclopedia to anyone who owned a mobile device. But unlike the online encyclopedia, which relies upon an army of unpaid volunteers, Stepes employs a network-based organizational structure, which like Uber, pays people for the work they perform.
One of the criticisms of the early network-based applications of the digital revolution is that the economic value created is not equitably distributed among all the value contributors. For example, Google, Twitter, and Facebook, could not survive if none of us contributed content. Yet, almost all the value for this content accrues to the select few who control the social media platforms. As long as people have jobs and participate on social networks in their spare time, a deal where they contribute content for free and get to use the service at no cost is agreeable. However, this arrangement will likely be unsustainable as the basic modus operandi when Big Data, 3D Printing, and advanced robotics converge to accelerate not just the elimination of jobs, but more importantly the passing of the bureaucratic organizations that produced those jobs. As technologies, such as Blockchain, develop the capacity to calculate the value of individual contributors, people whose companies have disappeared or who have lost their jobs will inevitably expect to share in the new wealth generated by their participation in the hyper-connected world.
The Future of Work
The future of work will not take place in top-down bureaucratic structures for the simple reason that, once alternative networks form and achieve critical mass, they inevitably displace their hierarchical predecessors as happened with iTunes and music retailers, smart phones and Kodak, Netflix and Blockbuster. As the game-changing phenomenon of digital transformation—the fundamental architectural shift in the way that the world works from top-down hierarchies to peer-to-peer networks—continues, corporations are likely to look very different from their traditional counterparts. Instead of top-down hierarchical structures of bosses and employees, they will be peer-to-peer networks capable of accessing talent anywhere in the world. The future of work is not in jobs where people work for bosses; it’s in collaborations of independent agents participating in sophisticated human networks to provide fast, accurate and affordable services. And if these new organizations are to thrive, they will need to create new working arrangements, like Stepes, that better distribute the value created among all the contributors, but more importantly, provide an alternative, and hopefully, better way for people to earn a good living.
Rod Collins (@collinsrod) is the Innovation Sherpa at Salt Flats and the author of Wiki Management: A Revolutionary New Model for a Rapidly Changing and Collaborative World (AMACOM Books). He writes for this column on the first Thursday of each month.