By David J. Cord, March 2012
Advances in technology allow innovative theories to leave classrooms and enter boardrooms.
Experience has shown that the best way to build an automobile is on an assembly line. Each worker has one task to perform, and their cumulative effort yields a car. Yet this basic concept can be taken further – out of the real world and into the virtual realm.
One Finnish company has discovered a potentially huge market in dividing labor into individual tasks online. Microtask uses the concepts of distributed labor, where workers are scattered across the globe, as well as crowdsourcing, where tasks are outsourced to a network of people. With improvements in technology, these theories have become practical business models.
CEO Ville Miettinen explains that they use software to break a job down into tiny sizes. Examples include digitalization of archives or verifying handwritten documents. Each task, such as verifying one box on a form, might require only one or two seconds to complete. These tasks are offered to a workforce scattered around the world.
Microtask has found many customers in the healthcare industry. Forms are often handwritten, but hospitals want to store patient records electronically. The company also had a major project with the National Library of Finland to verify that old documents were correctly scanned and converted to text. With the National Library program, Microtask distributed over 5.2 million tasks to 85,000 workers.
“Today most of our customers are in the US,” says Miettinen. “In fact, all of our new customers are in America. Many of our clients are in the healthcare and insurance industries. I’m currently spending a lot of time in the US talking to potential investors in Silicon Valley.”
With all of Microtask’s new business coming from America, and with potential new investors also in the US, why does Miettinen keep the company in Finland?
“It’s very simple,” he says. “Our R&D team, our engine, is in Finland. Here we can find high-quality engineers. Nokia has been generous enough to let skilled engineers enter the job market,” he explains, referring to recent layoffs resulting from restructuring plans at the Finnish mobile communications giant. “In Silicon Valley it’s very expensive to hire them, and they often switch jobs.”
While Microtask helps clients digitize documents, another young Finnish company focuses on document management. Whereas Microtask uses the theory of distributed work, M-Files uses the theory of distributed computing.
“We’re a software company,” says Miika Mäkitalo, vice president of operations at M-Files. “We specialize in document and information management. Every employee, from the CEO to the secretary, needs to be able to quickly find correct, up-to-date information.”
Some M-Files services use cloud computing, in which clients access shared resources and software over a network. M-Files designs its cloud computing on a level that users experience as more intuitive.
“Cloud solutions are often based on web technology,” Mäkitalo says. “Customers use a web browser, but for document management it can be quite slow and result in a bad user experience. We want to optimize the user experience, and our service feels like you are using your own laptop or local hard disk. It’s in the cloud, but it feels like a local computer.”
M-Files has experienced 50 percent annual growth over the past five years. Based in the southern central Finnish city of Tampere, it also has some staff in the Helsinki area and the US. The company has found that there are advantages to locating its headquarters in a smaller city.
“This is a good place to find skilled employees,” Mäkitalo notes. “Also, from Tampere it’s easy to serve not only all of Finland, but all of Europe.”
BBC News: Gamification time: What if everything were just a game?
(includes video coverage of Microtask's Digitalkoot project)
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