All Things Upwork
May 30, 2012 by Gary Swart

Hosted by the World Bank’s Knowledge and Learning Council and presented by the Jobs Knowledge Platform, the panel was led by World Bank Managing Director Mahmoud Mohieldin and was moderated by The Wall Street Journal’s economics editor David Wessel. In addition to myself, the panel included Jonathan Donner of Microsoft Research and Souktel CEO Jacob Korenblum.

We heard about the fascinating work being done on how technology can equalize employment opportunities around the world. It became apparent that there is a large gap between what technology could do and what technology is doing in these emerging markets, a gap that companies like oDesk and Souktel are trying to close.

Souktel, for example, is using mobile phone services to connect job seekers and businesses. In the majority of countries where Souktel operates (which is primarily the Middle East and Africa), the lack of reliable Internet access often affects people’s employment prospects. Souktel addresses that need by allowing mobile phone users to access a database of employees and employers.

oDesk focuses more on overcoming geographic barriers, bringing work to the worker instead of the worker to the work. We believe that it doesn’t matter where you are born; you should have access to any job you’re qualified to do, regardless of where that job is. We break down those barriers through eWork, which makes location essentially irrelevant — for developing economies, the Internet provides roads to jobs where previously there were none.

Yet there remains a lot of work to be done. Jonathan of Microsoft Research noted that there is still the question of how people without smartphone access can utilize online resources, and it remains to be seen how one country with multiple languages can use the same SMS system. He also discussed how further attention is needed on the availability, speed and quality of Internet access in developing countries, in addition to pricing models.

However, the future looks bright, Jonathan said. He discussed how the growth of digital technologies in the developing world is creating a climate of experimentation that is “supercharging the labor market.” While the first phase of shaping these labor markets has focused on putting the infrastructure in place to support this experimentation, the next phase is developing the platforms that enable networks of opportunity and economic exchange.

It was clear that the next frontier will be political and economic initiatives and programs to support this new way of accessing jobs. This is something that we at oDesk have already confronted — both with international money transfer and worker compliance — but there are still miles to go. Standing at the leading edge of this space are the countries that have already recognized the impact of mobile technology on their economies; Bangladesh, for example, recently declared that all money earned through online work platforms is tax-free.

Whether it concerns Internet and mobile technology access, international and national regulations and compliance, skills development, reputation management, or employer/job-seeker matching, there are many areas ripe for further research and discussion, as evidenced by last week’s event. We look forward to participating in this dialogue, and I am eager to see what exciting developments emerge as a result.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on which discussions are important for this space going forward, from global online work initiatives to mobile technology access in emerging markets. Please share your ideas in the comments section below.

Gary Swart

Chief Executive Officer

Gary Swart is the CEO of oDesk, the world’s largest online workplace. Gary is a thought leader in entrepreneurship; how best to hire and manage teams; and the future of work, including online work. He is passionate about helping small businesses thrive, fueled by his extensive experience working with startups and small businesses that use oDesk, as well as by mentoring entrepreneurs and business school… read more