Head in the Cloud, Boots on the Ground: An “Onsite Worker" Version of "Online Staffing"
It is often thought that the “online staffing platform model” only applies to “remote/virtual work arrangements” (e.g., I am here in San Francisco, and I hire a Java developer in the Ukraine, who performs all of the work I require remotely). But this is not the case.
Though the model has most often been used to support “remote/virtual work arrangements” (software development, marketing, writing, translating, etc.), it can be and sometimes is being used to support work arrangements for workers deployed locally at specific physical sites. One of the first firms to do this is an online staffing platform business called OnForce.
Founded approximately 10 years ago (then as a kind of job board or directory of IT service contractors), OnForce has since effectively become an “online staffing platform” specialized in arranging work engagements between independent IT contractors who perform installation and repair work (e.g. “service techs”) on a contingent and sometimes emergency basis.
Certain kinds of technology manufacturers/distributors, which supply equipment and devices (such as copiers, printers, networks, phone systems, etc.) to their customers, require local qualified technicians to respond to local customer service demands. These manufacturers/distributors did not always try to handle this problem by themselves with their own “hired” workforces, but instead turned to “national contractor businesses” (the likes of Granite, Halifax/Essintial, PC SOS, Pomeroy, ServRight, TechForce, TekServ, Trextel, Vital Network Services, et al) to manage talent/workforce that is geographically dispersed in the field and needed frequently, but irregularly.
In past years, some things have changed in this sector.
As noted in the article in CIO Magazine “More IT Pros Going Independent” (referring to a recent survey conducted by OnForce): among IT service techs, there is an increasing trend toward being “independent operators” as opposed to “employed” workers.
"OnForce surveyed more than 500 independent contractors and found that 60 percent of respondents joined the independent workforce willingly."These findings highlight the changing workforce dynamic in field service brought about by the volatile global economy," Sumair Dutta, vice president and principal analyst of service management at Aberdeen, says. ... More surprisingly, 56 percent of those surveyed said they wouldn't go back to work for an employer even if they were offered comparable salary and benefits.”
The other change that has been occurring has been the recent rise of “online staffing platform models” industry segment. As noted in the The Force Field, “2012 National Contractor and Service Platform, Survey Report:”
"IT service technicians have long relied on national IT service companies for contract related work. While not all techs perform work for nationals, many have, either as fill work during slow periods or as full time contractors. … Then came the IT Service Platform, a phenomenon of the 21st century that began with the advent of a web-based business model originally known as an IT “marketplace”. Internet based companies as OnForce, ServiceLive and a plethora of clones suddenly appeared across cyberspace, promising cheap labor to clients, less administrative overhead and guaranteed payment to the techs, and a completely transparent, level platform for all."
OnForce is one of the leading platforms serving this niche market for managing and deploying an increasingly “independent” field service tech workforce (which, given the proliferation of digital equipment and devices, may be expected to continue to grow in importance, if not in size, in the future). Creating and managing a large, costly field force, however, is not a business goal of manufacturers/distributors; therefore, these firms have been taking notice of these efficient online staffing platform solutions like OnForce, as a way of keeping costs low.
OnForce reports serving (i.e., arranging large numbers “field service tech” work engagements) for about 600 different business clients every month. The company also reports a shift in demand relationships from just mid-sized manufacturers/distributors to direct relationships wth very large OEMS that is now driving an uptick in growth.
It seems there is some controversy about the effectiveness of online staffing platforms in what must be an extremely complex workforce management market. Some observers have suggested that online staffing platforms may have reduced costs, but have not always supported the desired quality outcomes which manufacturers/distributors (and field techs) are looking for. It has been suggested too that some of the traditional “national contractor businesses” have used these platforms as a way to address low cost work orders, but with resulting compromises of quality outcomes.
OnForce, for its part, is not seeing a limited future, as it continues to expand its business and optimize its platform with a growing number of direct OEM relationships, on the one hand, and independent contractor relationships, on the other. We also know that other platform businesses (such as recent entrant WorkMarket) are operating and getting significant traction in this general area of deploying contingent workers into locally/onsite gigs.
Innovation and disruption tend to go hand in hand, and the development and operation of online staffing models should not be expected to proceed smoothly along a linear path without shortfalls and bumps in the road. This has tended to be true of all platform-type businesses, including online music (remember Napster) and social networking (remember MySpace). Even the online staffing platforms that support “remote/virtual work arrangements” went through a trial-and-error period of a good number of years, before the platforms serving that “work arrangement” market started to become optimized and exhibit explosive growth.
“Tuning and optimizing the platform” (without crashing it) is a necessary part of platform business building. Over the past ten years, we have seen online staffing platforms for “remote/virtual work arrangements” (oDesk, Elance, et al) optimize and reach critical mass. Now, in recent years, we are seeing a new breed of online staffing platforms for “local/onsite work arrangements” start down this complex path of “tuning and optimization.” And platform providers like OnForce are reporting seeing more than a light at the end of the tunnel (in the form of increasing positive results that are validating a business model of “online staffing” for “local/onsite” work).
The next 2 years or so should be a critical phase in the development of such models and businesses, and we should then have a pretty good idea of their longer-run viability and growth prospects.