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Think back to the last time you had a task for which you would have loved to have had an army of workers.

Perhaps you had to sort through thousands of articles looking for something specific, or maybe you had to transcribe hours of audio recordings. Perhaps you had to check for duplicate records in a database of thousands of entries, or saw an opportunity in the market that would have required you to mobilize hundreds of people to help you in a short amount of time.

Whatever the need, until now, you've had three choices: hire temporary workers, which can be pricey, messy and inefficient,; overburden your staff; or, worse, let the opportunity slip away.

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Increasingly, however, a growing number of Web-based markets for talent make renting expertise a whole lot more efficient.

For example, Amazon.com's Mechanical Turk is an online marketplace for temporary workers. Using your Amazon account, you can hire workers to complete tasks that a computer can't do efficiently.

Here's how Amazon describes the inspiration for the name:

"In 1769, Hungarian nobleman Wolfgang von Kempelen astonished Europe by building a mechanical chess-playing automaton that defeated nearly every opponent it faced. A life-sized wooden mannequin, adorned with a fur-trimmed robe and a turban, Kempelen's 'Turk' was seated behind a cabinet and toured Europe confounding such brilliant challengers as Benjamin Franklin and Napoleon Bonaparte. To persuade skeptical audiences, Kempelen would slide open the cabinet's doors to reveal the intricate set of gears, cogs and springs that powered his invention. He convinced them that he had built a machine that made decisions using artificial intelligence. What they did not know was the secret behind the Mechanical Turk: a chess master cleverly concealed inside."

To use Mechanical Turk, you post your task (Amazon uses the catchy acronym "HIT," which stands for "human intelligence tasks") to the online marketplace and pick a price (a minimum of five cents per task) for your HIT.

Workers – people from around the world looking to make a little extra money from home in their spare time – can then view your request.

I experimented with the site and saw basic HITs, from tagging a database of images for five cents per HIT all the way up to translating a block of 10 Japanese sentences into English for $1 each.

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While Mechanical Turk focuses on staffing for small, often repetitive tasks, website like eLance.com have allowed businesses to hire a flexible work force for larger projects. Toronto-based startup Go Team Freelance has begun offering a Web interface to find creative talent for your next advertising project.

What could you accomplish with a ready work force of thousands at your disposal?

Special to The Globe and Mail

John Warrillow is a writer, speaker and angel investor in a number of start-up companies. He is the author of Built To Sell: Creating a Business That Can Thrive Without You, published by Portfolio Penguin.

Join The Globe's Small Business LinkedIn group to network with other entrepreneurs and to discuss topical issues: http://linkd.in/jWWdzT

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