Upwork’s Work Without Limits Executive Summit: A Retrospective

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Before the unofficial end of summer, I had the opportunity to attend Upwork’s first Work Without Limits Executive Summit in San Francisco. Upwork, the largest global "online freelancer/business marketplace" (in terms of gross payment volume--effectively, spend), has earned a place on Spend Matters 50 to Watch list two years in a row, so many eyes are on the company.

The focus of the summit was actually Upwork Enterprise, Upwork’s online freelancer sourcing and services solution for enterprise-scale organizations (from midsize to Fortune 500 firms). Upwork Enterprise, which launched in the spring of 2015 following the earlier merger of Elance and oDesk, now counts 20 Fortune 500 companies using Upwork Enterprise, with more in the pipeline.

The summit billed itself as an “event [that] will bring together an intimate group of HR visionaries, the Fortune 500 C-suite, and policy experts to understand how progressive organizations are embracing the new world of work will help forward-thinking executives prepare for the changing world of work.” I would say the event definitely lived up to those expectations. In fact, I thought it was perhaps the most well-organized and orchestrated midsized event (nearly 100 professionals) that I’ve ever attended (A+ format and content).

In one and a half days, the summit covered a range of topics, including workforce trends, enterprise adoption, legal issues, new services and platform features, in addition to providing ample networking opportunities. But I would like to focus on two main areas: enterprise adoption and Upwork developments.

Enterprise Adoption

In addition to the other sessions on workforce trends, legal issues and the like, the summit features a number of sessions that focused on enterprise adoption of the Upwork solution:

  • One panel session included initiative leaders from Microsoft, P&G and Samsung — all companies with different approaches and at different stages of program adoption.
  • Another session included the managing director of GE GENIUSLINK, a kind of internal “utility,” started five years ago, that gives both GE and external users structured access to some 23 “expert platform” partners (Upwork was the 23rd).
  • In another session, two Oxford Internet Institute researchers presented findings from their recently released, first-of-its-kind research report “Platform Sourcing: How Fortune 500 Firms Are Adopting Online Freelancing Platforms,” which analyzed and compared adoption patterns of nine large enterprises.

So what were some of my key takeaways?

  • Though still at early stage, an increasing number large enterprises are starting to use online freelancers and are at various phases of adoption (including scaling up).
  • Adoption is not a one-and-done implementation; it requires different change management strategies depending upon the organization and will be orchestrated over a period of years. (It may be one or two years before an adequate beachhead can be established to reach a scaling stage.) Refer to the full report PDF for details.
  • While the adoption process can be challenging and require time and resources, organizations that persist can achieve scale and (what enterprise adopters have reported as) significant benefits. The chart below, presented by a Global 1000 company, suggests what is possible:

  • Highly notable: while cost savings was certainly important, the not-unrelated benefits associated with speed, flexibility and quality of outputs provided to business users were considered to be of even greater importance.

The overall takeaway was that enterprises are adopting online freelancers delivered through a platform like Upwork Enterprise, users are realizing benefits and proven adoption patterns and practices are emerging. I have been observing and analyzing online freelancer platforms and enterprise adoption for over five years now, and I can say that the progress has been significant.

Upwork Developments

At least two significant Upwork Enterprise developments were communicated at the summit.

The first was the launch a new Upwork Enterprise services component, Talent Services. Described as a “human layer,” Talent Services provides support alternatives for adopting enterprise. For further details, refer to our recent article on the subject.

The second was a peek into the platform roadmap, which included a number of important developments. In addition to ongoing enhancements of mobile, these included:

  • The capability to not only engage online freelancers but also engage and manage agencies/service providers and SOWs online (an entire workflow including provider candidate search and match, RFP and engagement)

  • Spend management dashboards and spend analytics for business managers

In short, Upwork continues to add services and functionality that will support enterprise adoption and utilization of Upwork Enterprise as a means of sourcing and managing online freelancers and service providers.

Until Next Year

Upwork’s first Work Without Limits Executive Summit was an outstanding success in a number of ways. Most important, it provided ample evidence that enterprise adoption of online freelancing is real and trending upward. Though not a slam dunk by any means, early adopter enterprises are now gaining traction with their programs. For the first time, third-party research has zeroed in on adoption patterns in large enterprises making insights available to other enterprises that are looking into adoption initiatives. For its part, Upwork continues to make significant investment in its enterprise offering. It will be very interesting to be back and see what the state of enterprise adoption for online freelancing will be a year from now.

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