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In the briefing room: Smartsourcing with the Mechanical Turk

Smartsheet Smartsourcing is a new offering that provides on-demand access to virtual workers who can be employed on a task-by-task basis.

Amazon.com originally developed the Mechanical Turk for use in projects for the company’s e-commerce site.  It was so well received that the company then decided to open up the service beyond its originally intended in-house use to external customers.  Unfortunately, many potential users were turned off by an unfriendly user interface,

Enter Smartsheet.  The company’s management recognized that the existing Smartsheet collaborative spreadsheet product could serve as an easy-to-use interface to the virtual worker cloud.

Here’s how it works.  From the Smartsheet interface, users enter a detailed description of the task and indicate how much they are willing to pay for it (rates can be set anywhere between $0.01 and $5.00).  They then select parameters such as a due date, number of workers, and the minimum approval rating of workers that will be accepted.  The rating is a percentage that reflects any time that workers’ work was rejected by a user.  Paying more and accepting only higher ranked workers should result in higher quality output.  Smartsheet links the request with Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, connecting the user to the virtual workforce, which then picks up the task and completes it.

Smartsourcing seems best suited for research, transcription, image tagging, copywriting, and other discrete tasks that can be broken out and are simple and clear in nature.  For example, we used Smartsourcing as a kind of brainstorming tool to solicit examples of an information overload problem.  The service did work and we did get a few usable results. In hindsight, our query may not have been the best use of the system, perhaps due to the difficulty of explaining exactly what we were looking for.  In Smartsourcing, the final work product is largely dependent on the clarity of the query.  Tasks that can be communicated clearly, such as filling in cells on a spreadsheet, or developing lists of contacts with biographical information, are well suited for Smartsourcing.

With this new product, Smartsheet is offering organizations new ways of managing work by allowing them to outsource tasks that are time consuming and of lower value than other work.  By allowing knowledge workers in an organization to focus on higher value work, Smartsourcing ultimately allows managers to deploy resources more intelligently and maximize the efficiency of knowledge worker assets.