Business reliance on the freelancer economy continues to grow. Organizations in every industry and geography are increasingly indebted to external talent, whom we term agile talent, to augment their resources in strategic areas. The benefits are substantial: Agile talent provides organizations with greater flexibility, speed, and competitive insight. And as part of a contingent staffing strategy, emerging businesses and startups can afford access to outstanding technical experts that would otherwise be cost prohibitive on a full-time basis. (Though agile talent crosses skill sets and sectors, we find that it’s a staffing model that’s particularly popular in technical fields right now.)
But business and government leaders have much to learn about designing their organizations to ensure the full benefits of accessing agile talent.
We have a unique perch from which to observe how well organizations are “tuned” to create a productive and positive work environment for freelancers and other agile talent. One of us is a consultant and educator whose new book, Agile Talent, describes how organizations can maximize the advantages and strategic return on their agile talent investment. The other one of us cofounded10x Management, a well-respected talent agency representing top-tier freelance programmers, designers, and other technology professionals.
Here’s the problem. Most organizations aren’t good at project management, and fewer still have a well-defined and structured protocol for engaging and managing agile talent other than contractually. Once the freelancer is selected and contracted (no easy task, but that’s a discussion for another article), management is left to the individual project or functional manager. Some are excellent. Others are new to managing or stronger technically than as a supervisor. Rarely do we find organizations that direct, support, and oversee the work of agile talent, and the projects they support, on a consistent and disciplined basis.
This is a big miss. Organizations do better when managers have access to advice and best practice in leading mixed teams. And external experts benefit when there is a resource available to assist when conflicts occur or problems arise for which they are unprepared.
How can organizations provide this support to managers of agile talent, external experts, and the teams they support? We suggest a number of possible approaches for organization leaders to consider:
- Assign a roving chief technology officer or project manager. One approach that 10X has recommended is creating a roving CTO or project managers. Their principal responsibility is to support product managers and technical teams in optimizing the planning, onboarding, utilization, and management of freelancers. Their goal is to arrange the conditions for an effective collaboration, and provide ongoing coaching support as needed. They are responsible for making sure agile talent and the internal teams they support have clear roles, a well-defined plan, and effective interaction. They should be senior and experienced enough to be respected by both internal and external team members, and sufficient clout to cut through the bureaucracy as needed.
- Create the role of “external talent manager.” A second option we proposed in Agile Talent is the role of “external talent manager.” We imagined it as an executive role within HR (or procurement) with three principal responsibilities: developing a strong network of external resources, ensuring the productivity of agile talent relationships, and building the organization’s brand as an excellent environment for top external (as well as internal) freelancers and other technical talent. In this sense it is similar to the roving CTO but focused more on the depth and effectiveness of the agile talent network. We know that lately some organizations — Rio Tinto is one example — are beginning to experiment with this concept, where the chief learning or talent officer within HR function is responsible for building and nurturing the agile talent network.
- Broaden the role of your “chiefs.” Similar in some respects to the CTO role is the role of the technical “chief.” Petroleum and mining organizations have long employed roles like chief geologist or chief engineer. The chief is responsible for technical productivity, innovation, and the coaching and development of technical staff. Chiefs are typically more focused on internal technical professionals but are already expected informally to keep tabs on new technology developments and therefore external expertise. It would not be a stretch to broaden their role to agile talent as well.
- Leverage your project mentors. Leading organizations such as Intel, Facebook, and LinkedIn have found technical mentorship programs of strong value, and there is quite a bit of data indicating that well-designed and supported technical mentoring improves productivity and performance. It would not be a significant stretch to ask technical mentors to “adopt” a project team, including the agile talent supporting the team. There are certainly cross benefits: mentors give support and also gain skills and maturity through their activities supporting others’ work. It is a powerful tool for developing project managers and more senior project and general management. And going full circle, it would be an obvious experience that organizations would want roving CTOs, project managers, or future chiefs to have.
We believe there is a pressing need for leaders to acknowledge that the productivity and engagement of agile talent is an increasing priority, and requires a thoughtful organizational response. The high cost of getting it wrong — both financially and strategically — challenges organizations to get it right. As we have suggested, there are multiple ways to address this need and leaders ought to consider which approach makes the most sense for their business.
Jon Younger is a partner of the Agile Talent Collaborative and the author of several books in HR and talent management, including Agile Talent (HBR Press, 2016). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Rishon Blumberg is co-founder and managing partner at 10x Management. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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