Harnessing the Gig Economy

My Caribbean-based correspondent Nicole Antonio-Gadson (it’s always important to have friends in hot places) drew my attention to an article from the CIPD this week that asked the question Is your talent strategy ready for the Gig EconomyAs fellow free-range professionals it’s a subject that we both have an interest in from personal professional and client professional perspectives (Nicole is an HR specialist, I’m an HR talented amateur).

What struck me most about the article, in re-reading a bit of a puff piece for a PWC research paper published presumably to primarily attract such coverage, was how one-dimensional their interpretation of Gig Economy felt. It was all about technology-mediated brokerages for labour – platforms like TaskRabbit or Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. I’ve no doubting the power in potential with these models, but I shudder at the prospect of a zero-hours contract dystopia that awaits, a world where the lowest paid are increasingly pushed into enforced self-employment and then beaten up by the government for not being able to pay themselves enough.

But whilst zero-hours could end up being a life of low paid servitude for those on the lower rungs of the pay scale, it can be a liberating life for those in the middle. It’s basically how I work these days. But whilst organisations might be gearing up for certain types of gigging, the digitally-brokered model is only one side of the equation. My work comes through networks, relationships and discovering potential opportunities. If I were to work only from where potential clients had worked out what they needed to an extent that they could define it and stick it in a database… well, I’d be bankrupt by now.

And here’s the thing: a gig economy that focuses exclusively around brokered worked units is one that assumes that the client knows all the right answers. That’s, quite frankly, usually the low value stuff.

The way that I, and a number of people I know, work is to help when the client possibly doesn’t even know the right questions. There are a number of challenges that organisations face in engaging with people like us:

  • as small businesses, entering on to preferred supplier lists become overbearing and unworkable. Often I need to subcontract to an existing supplier or go in through an umbrella company. Whilst there is trust on both sides for this to work, it actually makes me less accountable – one of the things that PSLs were usually set up to avoid.
  • dealing with small businesses through a networked relationship often is viewed as susceptible to nepotism or corruption – it’s somehow not “fair” in comparison to open tendering processes. But if the bit of work didn’t exist because the organisation didn’t have the capacity or capability to identify it…
  • tendering processes are anti-innovative, anti-collaborative and anti-agile. They work really well if you know exactly what you are need to acquire, and particularly if that thing is a commodity. They struggle to work if you don’t know the right answer or even the right question.
  • organisations are geared to protect themselves from employment regulations (rightly), and are particularly keen to not make it look like that they are employing someone when they are not (see PSLs above). People and clients working through servicing companies on long-term contracts (permalancers) have been abusing this for decades, despite changes in tax regulations such as IR35. I get the need for protection of exploited non-employees. I positively encourage the need to reduce tax avoidance. But there is an issue at all levels of the Gig economy here that is going to take some resolving.
  • big organisations struggle to make systems and services accessible outside of their domains, and restrict access to modern collaboration services. I really struggle to work effectively with many of my clients because, frankly, their IT sucks.

And extending out from that last point is the really interesting part – the mindset of where the boundaries of the organisation stop (or if, these days, there even are such boundaries) is going to be the biggest barrier for traditional organisations to take advantage of the changing nature of work. Thinking about leveraging networks that span within and outside, being less hung up about proprietary thinking, being able to accept that people can and have to be treated in ways different to merely “human resource” because they have become empowered to take their talent elsewhere…

The real challenge for organisations looking to take advantage of the Gig economy is going to be in becoming more trusting, more open, and breaking the common problem of thinking behind a firewall. Those aren’t things that will be broken down by technology – those are significant behavioural changes that will need to be made by groups and individuals within our bigger institutions.

I’m currently running a research project looking at collaboration and collaboration technology for the Leading Edge Forum. Find out more at http://bit.ly/sharingorg 

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