From infrastructure-as-a-service to workforce-as-a-service

Food delivery

Food delivery

Credit: Sam Saunders (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Cloud technologies: not just enablers of scalable and flexible IT, but also of a scalable and flexible workforce?


Cloud computing was originally devised as an alternative to deploying racks of servers in company-owned (or shared) data centers. However, the technology services that have grown on top of the concept -- to finally become quintessential to the concept -- have changed the game.

The cloud stack: IaaS, PaaS, SaaS

Cloud technology is typically segmented into three layers, or service models:

  • Infrastructure as a service (IaaS) provides infrastructure like physical computing resources, location, data partitioning, scaling, security, backup etc.
  • Platform as a service (PaaS) offers a development and deployment environment to application developers.
  • Software as a service (SaaS), sometimes referred to as on-demand software, provides access to application software for end-users.

While IaaS remains primarily a way for IT infrastructure to scale and adapt to changing requirements, the latter two (PaaS and SaaS) have become the key for companies to quickly build and deploy applications (and also complex business processes) that are easily and instantly accessible by users.

From SaaS/PaaS to platformization

Thanks to PaaS, any company can easily assemble business services, accessible through APIs, link these services with their custom logic or secret sauce, and quickly release these features to the market. And with SaaS, deploying a Web front end (and companion mobile apps) has really become the easiest part of building a software stack.

Together, PaaS and SaaS enable the platformization of the economy: building business models and their supporting technology with speed and agility and at minimal cost, and enabling the fast deployment of these businesses to their target.

Meeting an on-demand workforce

Typically, service-oriented business models fall into two categories: direct service and intermediation. In the former case, the service is rendered directly by the provider (for example, credit scoring, or fitness tracking). In the latter case, the provider is a middleman that contracts third parties to render the service: chauffeured cars, food delivery, or crowdsourced software vulnerability testing are examples.

One of the keys to success for an intermediation platform is to achieve quickly critical mass for the providers of the service. When you look for a ride from the airport, if the app does not show any driver around, you will probably resort to jumping in a cab or on mass transit. If you are hungry and ready to order dinner, a 2-hour delivery time won’t fly. And any crowdsourcing requires ... well, a crowd.

Beyond recruiting clients, the platform also becomes the way the company interacts with its workforce: an increasingly mobile, agile workforce, that chooses when they work, who they work for. A workforce that doesn’t mind testing software by day and delivering meals in the evening. A workforce that becomes a service for company: a workforce as a service.

A paradigm shift

This workforce-as-a-service paradigm triggers passionate debates in many industrialized countries. On one hand, it brings great flexibility to both the order-giver and the worker. On the other hand, it creates a high degree of insecurity for the workers -- probably even more than what existed in the early industrial era. And of course, because it is a paradigm shift, it is still a gray area from the legal and tax perspectives -- probably the most visible examples would be the legal battles that Uber is fighting in California or France to avoid having its drivers reclassified as employees.

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