Is spec work evil?

(Originally written and posted at www.wikinomics.com)

Not my words – this is coming from a panel discussion (posted below) at March’s SXSW Conference in Austin, Texas. The debate was surrounding the issues relating to speculative (spec) work, which we’ve written about previously (here’s a blog that Denis wrote last year on crowdSPRING.com). For those unfamiliar, sites like crowdSPRING allow individuals (or companies) to post a project to be created, list a price to be paid to the winner, and then choose the winning project from a series of submissions.

Denis used crowdSPRING to design the logo for his chTONGUEeek website, and discussed his experience with them in this blog. For his purposes, crowdSPRING was great – he received 69 logo submissions, the opportunity to collaborate with the designer whose proposal he liked the best, and of course, got the logo he needed. All for $150.

So, this brings us to the issue up for debate among the SXSW panelists (in the video below). Does spec work (in creative) devalue an industry of designers?

From the perspective of workers within the industry, it’s not surprising that established designers and creative firms would be opposed to spec work; one panelist discussed a possible industry blacklisting of workers who engage on sites like crowdSPRING. For more on this perspective, see the NO!SPEC website, where you can read their “Ten Reasons” against spec work, or the article Why Speculation Hurts.

On the flip side, there’s a good argument to be made that sites like crowdspring tear down barriers and facilitate entry into the profession for the young workers looking to build a resume. As an aspiring young designer, it can be hard to build a professional resume and get your first job (this applies to most professions). To these workers, there could be a lot of value in gaining experience through crowdspring (and other spec sites).

The panel at SXSW did a great job covering the issues of spec work in design and creative. But what if we apply this spec work model to other industries?

One of the best perspectives on this issue came from Alan Majer, citing a great example of a family member who works in the medical profession. Alan’s analogy actually surrounded the provision of a government grant, where $100 000 of funding was available to a company that placed the “best bid” on a given assignment – a fairly common process. His family member (and her team) put in about a week’s worth of time working on this project. But so did 50-100 other teams that also submitted bids, meaning that, theoretically, anywhere from 49-99 teams used up about a week’s worth of work for nothing. If you aggregate the whole process, there was a lot of work put in (with people “dropping their day jobs”) for what amounts out to very little money.

This raises questions about sites like Innocentive, a company that generally gets very good press (in Wikinomics, in the news, and of course, in the blogosphere). Innocentive is a great way to find innovations, and is an excellent example of how companies can use external collaboration for R&D. But from a broader economic perspective, could Innocentive also be somewhat damaging to the science industry? In many cases, Innocentive works well because it connects company X working on project Y with a scientist elsewhere in the world who, unbeknownst to them, has also been working on project Y; a win-win. But what if Innocentive were promoting spec work? If a $1 000 000 award is offered to a scientist who can solve a specific problem, and 2000+ scientists worldwide drop their current projects to spend two weeks working on it, doesn’t this seem problematic, in terms of lost production?

I would argue that in the first example (connecting Y with Y), Innocentive is fantastic. But if it (or sites like it) start drawing too many workers away from their real value-adding jobs, as with Alan’s example above, then it probably is damaging, on an aggregate economic level.

So is spec work evil? For logo design on a site like chTONGUEeek, probably not. But if this model was applied to other industries, it could certainly be damaging.

One thing I’m willing to bet – we’re likely to see an increase in the use of spec work as more people catch on to Web 2.0, and also as individuals and companies look to cut costs in the new economy.

(Editor’s note:  this post originally appeared on www.wikinomics.com; here’s the original link.  On that original blog, the CEO of Innocentive posted a very well articulated (albeit lengthy) comment, debating some of my points.  Definatley worth a read).

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