Why Can’t the Workplace Run Like Fantasy Football?
By James Minger, Associate at Gatti & Associate’s sister company, Armstrong Franklin
So, the pundits have spoken – by 2020, the majority of the U.S. workforce will be free agents. That’s right, we’ll be a nation of Uber-delivered engineers, scientists, teachers, technicians and customer service reps. Financial analysts by Task Rabbit. Neurosurgery by Kelly Services. Organizations everywhere seem to be embracing and even preparing for this. Here comes the great talent commoditization wave, where people are simply plug-and-play bundles of skillsets.
Of course, this has been the “hook” for generations of sports statistics buffs – an artificial world, where every situation has been anticipated and ruled on and where every shred of performance can be reduced to a number. Add a few teraflops of computing power and viola! – Hypothetical teams, playing hypothetical games, with hypothetical outcomes that people are now paying millions of dollars to participate in.
We get the attraction. Wouldn’t it be great if we could run an entire economy this way? With the data-fication of everything, isn’t it logical to think that a full-blown workforce-on-demand is right around the corner? Like most over-the-top prognostications, there is a major dose of truth in all of this, but as usual, the reality will probably be somewhere in the middle. Great companies will run on a combination of traditional employees, contractors, temps, consultants and free agents of all sorts, but the mix will change pretty dramatically.
The pundits have gotten our attention by radicalizing an old idea. After all, freelancers have been around forever. Contractors, Temps and Consultants of various sorts are a major segment of the workforce. The sports and entertainment industries are built on talent running their own careers. Movie-makers, studio musicians, sportscasters and quarterbacks all make their livings in a freelance economy. The reality (and magic) of biotech has been the small drug discovery company, often driven more by aspiration than fact, surrounded by a collaborating community of government-, academic-, industry- and patient-advocates that is 10X its size.
It’s also true that lots of positions are so well-defined that they are very close to being those interchangeable bundles of skill-sets – ever see flight attendants (or pilots!) introduce themselves before a flight? There’s no need for them to actually know each other in order to work together – the job is completely standardized. Other jobs can approach that kind of predictability with constant feedback that quickly transforms survey results into credentials – witness Uber drivers evaluating customers evaluating Uber drivers or the software development community at GitHub, an ecosystem where more than 11 million careers thrive on the “street cred” that their work generates.
At the risk of raining on the parade, though, we have to point out that the fallacy in all of this seems pretty obvious. Even if, as XXXX puts it, corporations are becoming social institutions more than economic ones, they are certainly not going out of style. Organizations are why one plus one often equals way more than 3. They hold the world together. They serve a basic human need – wanting to achieve things together. There are critically important things that can’t be commoditized – context, mission and motivation among them – that make all the difference. Perhaps most important of all, and least recognized, is the fact that jobs drift, skills develop as problems are solved and solutions form, and organizations inevitably invest in people – explicitly and inadvertently. Why would they ever want to throw that investment away by throwing them back into the talent pool?
Successful companies will have to master a more complex, ambiguous and even contradictory set of concepts:
Balancing Abundance & Scarcity. The challenge will be to know which skill-sets are open-source, relatively abundant and quickly available and which are more context-specific, esoteric and unique to the company’s mission.
Managing Flow & Fit. In today’s market for talent, flow is easy. Fit is hard. A biotech client of ours had 300 jobs to fill last year and had 33,000 applicants. Google gets more than 2million applicants each year for a few thousand positions, and there’s an entire generation of talented staff, recruiters and managers who have become a bit “LinkedIn lazy.” They post and pray, troll resumes or apply for (literally) thousands of jobs at a time. Flow is easy. Fit is hard.
Understanding Loose & Tight. There are situations where you can “phone it in,” but we view those as increasingly rare and increasingly sub-optimal. More often, creativity and innovation comes from the talent “soup” that’s created when a group of really bright people are immersed in the same problem. Sometimes, this is a very short-cycled process – a complex financial derivatives trade, or a print advertisement. In others, like drug discovery, it’s a decade-long proposition, with team continuity, unity of purpose and a deep sense of mission being the most important elements.
Managing the “Tribe”. All organizations are prone to tribal behavior – geographic, cross-functional, or along myriad other dimensions. In a truly positive and functional culture, employment “status” – as a “regular” employee, contractor, freelancer, consultant or tempcannot distinguish one tribe from another. In a composite workforce, the only thing that should convey second-class citizenship is performance.
In summary, we expect this particular set of predictions to fall a bit short. Recruiting great talent will become easier, more data-driven and more standardized in some situations and at the same time become more difficult, more intuitive and more customized in others. Either way, talent will remain the greatest constraint on, and the greatest opportunity for, the success of organizations everywhere.