Microtasks: An Unlikely Legacy of Benjamin Franklin

Many would agree that Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) was a successful man. After all, in his life he did everything from discover that lightning is electricity to draft the American Declaration of Independence. He even invented bifocals.

What contributed to his great success in life?

In part, a fierce desire to achieve personal excellence tied together neatly in a practical, daily task-management system.

Beginning in his late twenties, Franklin created a step-by-step system to break down his main objective (in this case, excellence) into bite-size goals, or rather, microtasks. He then arranged each goal (mastering different virtues) by level of priority. He proceeded to focus on mastering each virtue one at a time, where he measured and reviewed his progress routinely, always aspiring to better himself.

Later on, an engineer and the father of modern day management consulting, F. W. Taylor (1856-1915), would revisit microtasking. This time, however, he would use it to create a system to scientifically manage the way people worked. He did this by breaking every action, job, or task into small and simple segments, which could be analyzed and taught.

To scientifically determine the best way to perform a job, Taylor performed what he called "time and motion studies." Using a stopwatch, he would time a worker's sequence of motions with the goal of determining the best way to perform a job. Taylor would then template the best sequences and have them reproduced for optimal results later on.

In both Franklin and Taylor's cases, processes were broken down into microtasks which could be tracked and analyzed. With Franklin, this led to great personal success and with Taylor to critical improvements to economic and labour productivity.

The process of microtasking continues to this day, but its functions are much more diverse. Given the websites and applications that are emerging, microtasks can now form the foundation to incite millions of people to engage in a wide range of activities.

Those who are eager to make a difference in the world around them can take action on platforms like IfWeRanTheWorld, a web-meets-world crowdsourced platform designed to turn intentions into action (where crowdsourcing is defined as the process of outsourcing a task or project to a group of people to get something done).

For instance, if Franklin were alive today, he could invite two or two thousand of his students to join him in carrying out daily self-improvement "microactions." This could lead to exponentially more people training themselves in methods of self-improvement and potentially benefitting from the activities that follow.

Another great tool is PyBossa, an open-source crowdsourcing and microtasking platform designed to handle volunteer-driven projects. It helps researchers, civic hackers and developers to create projects where anyone around the world with some time, interest and an internet connection can contribute.

What's exciting is that the aggregate sum of actions created and completed across crowdsourced microtasking networks, when combined, have the ability to exponentially catapult one task or action to hundreds in a community - or even millions of people around the world.

Ultimately, we have the opportunity and means to apply microtasking to enrich our lives, our cultures and build better societies. As it was in the case of Benjamin Franklin, success is ours: people just need the right leaders, tools and incentives to motivate them to act.