Upwork Launches Talent Services Division to Enable Enterprise Use of Online Freelance Workforce

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Upwork announced Wednesday that it is launching a new functional organization it calls Talent Services. The company issued a press release titled “Upwork​ ​Creates​ ​World’s​ ​Largest​ ​On-Demand​ ​Talent​ ​Agency” at its Work Without Limits executive summit in San Francisco (read our kick-off coverage here).

The new division combines consultative services with Upwork’s technology platform and online marketplace, enabling quick access for enterprise companies to the specific freelance talent they need, when they need it, according to the press release. Talent Services “adds a people layer to Upwork Enterprise,” Upwork’s platform solution for larger companies. Upwork Enterprise was launched in 2015, and Upwork reports that it is “used by nearly 20% of Fortune 500 companies.”

We recently had an opportunity to discuss the new organization and its services with Margaret Lilani, vice president of talent services at Upwork. Lilani, a staffing industry veteran, was hired late last year to build and manage this new Talent Services organization.

Lilani began by telling us how Talent Services differed from Upwork PRO, launched in early 2016 (see our coverage here).

“Efforts to date,” Lilani said, “worked to address similar needs, but it was still somewhat transactional” — filling one job at a time, for example. “What is driving Talent Services now is being able to provide services at scale.” Accordingly, Upwork’s Talent Services team has grown 250% since Lilani came on board.

One aspect of Talent Services is still assisting clients to source specific talent. Liliani told us that while the Upwork AI technology can identify the top 1% of freelancers, Talent Services provides clients with dedicated freelancer evaluation and support teams. These teams work proactively with the top 1% of freelancers to identify “the top 3% of those 1%, or premier freelancers.”

Not only is it important to get a real handle on who the best talent are and where they can best be utilized, it is equally important to do everything possible to support freelancer success, such as through profile improvement. The other part of the process is working with clients to understand their job requirements or project specifications and match talent to them.

For clients that want to be really hands off, Lilani said, there is a program management offering to work in depth with the client to do not just specific hires but to take broad ideas and needs the client has and operationalize them by breaking them down into multiple jobs or projects. Upwork’s program managers work with hiring managers to define the scope of the project, identify the skills needed to support the project and design processes to track project outcomes and deliver final reporting. In effect, program management means a shift from outsourced hiring to project outcomes management.

Lilani described a few cases where Talent Services played a successful role with clients. In one case, a client needed a large team of data entry people to perform tasks related to geolocation data points. A Talent Solution team worked with hiring managers to help scope out the skills and talent level needed. It turned out the client needed five teams, a total of 620 freelancers all over the world, which were sourced through Upwork.

“We helped them hire 200 of those freelancers in the first 30 days of the project,” Lilani said. “That project billed over 161,000 hours. Huge scale delivery.”

Lilani also expressed her excitement about a new program management service offering known as The Talent Store. Lilani explained that a client may have multiple time-sensitive needs or projects that are similar in scope and skill requirements. An example could be a client that has an ongoing, but irregular, need for translation of documents into multiple languages. The client needs to have talent at the ready, but it also needs that talent to have access to certain systems and to be prevetted via its infrastructure. The talent may need access to a VPN or need to be background checked — all of which can hold up on-demand delivery.

Accordingly, Talent Services has been working to establish standardized project descriptions, delivery time expectations or SLAs and output quality standards. Based on those established parameters, Lilani said, Talent Services can go out and build “stores of talent” that are ready to access and are ready to deliver the needed work. It’s a kind of prerecruitment.

“If 30 people are needed, then we’ll go out and talk to 100 people,” Lilani said. “When the work is needed, it’s like pushing a button. Prospectively, we can build a specific talent store for one client, and if we have another with a similar need, we can almost port the whole store.”

Clearly, Talent Services is not just a recruiting or sourcing service. It is also a kind of outsourcing service for managing projects and project outcomes.

Spend Matters Perspective

While online freelancer marketplaces have been well suited to small and medium-sized organizations, the goal of enterprise adoption has proven elusive. Back in 2015, Upwork launched Upwork Enterprise to establish a technology platform that enterprises could use to source and organize online freelancers. Perhaps in retrospect, we should not be surprised that technology alone was not enough to promote adoption.

Adding a “service layer” — which seems to a trend among other work platforms, as well — now appears to be a necessary component of an enterprise solution. A service layer can promote adoption in a number of ways:

  1. Provide talent sourcing support to tap into a huge online freelancer population to find the exact talent needed in a timely manner
  2. Outsource talent sourcing and organization for large scale projects that can (or must) leverage online freelancers (for example, when activities need to be performed across different countries, cultures or languages)
  3. Create and deliver innovative workforce or talent-as-a-service solutions that could only be possible when based on an online platform (as opposed to through a traditional consulting or outsourcing solution). The Talent Store concept is a very good example of such an innovation.

Upwork Services is a new stage in the company’s ongoing evolution from originally being an online freelancer marketplace suitable to SMB organizations to becoming a total solution for enterprise use of online talent — something that is now happening. Becoming a go-to-solution for enterprises may go beyond being “the world’s largest on-demand talent agency” (i.e., delivers specific talent for use by an organization), to becoming a next-generation outsourcer of projects and managed outcomes that require a geographically distributed, even worldwide, online workforce. In any event, as we believe we should not envision the digital future of anything in terms of old models, it looks like the launch of Talent Services is taking Upwork in the right direction.

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