Elance-oDesk, Data, and the Hidden Power (and Value) of Online Staffing Platforms

This week, Elance-oDesk issued the company’s first public press communication since the announcement of the merger, 6 months ago, in December 2013.  The occasion was the publication of Global Online and U.S. Online Work Report (which, as the press release points out, for the very first time, “draws from the [combined] Elance-oDesk data warehouse, which contains the world's largest and most comprehensive set of data available regarding independent work happening online).”

There were quite a number of interesting data points in this new combined data set. One was a revelation that the current annualized run-rate of Elance-oDesk gross spend/freelancer earnings of $940 million, which CEO Fabio Rosati mentioned in a briefing call, was fast moving toward $1 billion (at that level, Elance-oDesk would weigh in around the same size of the 35th largest global staffing firm — and growing much more rapidly). In addition, there was truly revealing data, such as there now being 2 million U.S.-based freelancers registered on Elance-oDesk (with 248,000 new US workers registering January through May 2014).  The report also pinpoints the natural—and ever more rapid — ebb and flow of different skills in demand:  Demand for Data Science, Internet Security, and Android App Development is growing noticeably, while demand for Facebook Development, Ajax Programming, and Joomla! Development is noticeably falling off.

And so, while these published reports reveal some interesting data points, they also reveal — like the tip of an iceberg — the enormous data resources and insights that online staffing platforms make possible. 

As Rosati pointed out in the press release:

"Never before have we enjoyed such visibility into work — from the number and nature of jobs, to demand for skills, to where and how the work gets done," he said. "We live in a connected age when millions of businesses and professionals can collaborate with anyone with unprecedented ease. Together with our customers, we are re-imagining where, when and how work gets done."

He also emphasized in the briefing call that “data” was one main pillar in the strategy of combining Elance and oDesk and doing business as one company in the future. 

This makes a great deal of sense.

We all hear and to some extent understand that we have entered a world of “big data” in our personal and our work lives (that is, the more we live and work with and through digital devices and platforms). Online staffing platforms are not just “marketplace” platforms potentially — they can support a whole range of other services that can enable work getting done over time (often in different new ways).  At the very least, online staffing platforms are also “big data platforms” that can capture extensive and rich data about work in a way that was previously impossible. 

Traditional staffing models had to overlay data capture over their processes, with limited results.  With online staffing, however, it is a natural outgrowth of an online platform model — on a digital platform, processes and data capture go together.  However, while platform data capture is a given, it still has to be harnessed (which takes resources, time and expertise) — which leads us full circle to CEO Rosati’s remarks late last year about the merger: the combining of internal data science teams and the focusing of more R&D resources in this area to go on to develop, as he puts it now, an “online workplace for the world.”

This week Elance-oDesk issued some new interesting reports containing some interesting data points. These two reports can be taken at face value. Or they can be seen as signaling something greater about the power and value of online platforms in the evolving work arrangement intermediation (staffing) space.

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