By Anna Tavis, Ph.D. 

There is a fatigue setting in among management literature readers with the “future of work” prophesies. The topic, along with “generations at work” and the elusive “employee engagement,” is the ever-moving target for HR. 

What we need most is  as a practical guide to the brave new world of work, where talent connects to employment wherever and whenever it finds the best fit. As talent flows freely in between  “gigs,” "jobs" and "in between jobs" economy, the “war” for that "talent" forces us to rethink what “work” really stands for and how we go about getting things done. We are finding ourselves in the midst of the big shift towards  the flexible, boundary-less, porous talent marketplace—inside and outside traditional companies .

The real heroes of this "gig economy" are the talent platforms that allow for its free agents to thrive. Top- coder, Tongal, Upwork, and MTurk replace the employers of the past with collaborative smart technology, as they allow for their members to organize and optimize the delivery of work. As good surrogate employers, they take care of the traditional HR responsibilities of rewarding, evaluating, governing, insuring, and developing employees.

Compelling stories of these new employment arrangements  are too many to list. Just compare  the biggest ad firm in the world, London-based WPP with its 180,000 global employees, and its new economy twin rival, Tongal, with just 60 full timers, but with a talent pool of more than 70,000 and growing.

Ironically, the old companies are beginning to look more and more like the new ones. Take IBM’s Open Talent Marketplace (OTM) or the Assignment Agency. Invented by its employees as an alternative to replace  the punishing forced ranking system of performance evaluation, OTM is the company’s own internal talent platform, matching projects with those employees who want to bid for them. That is a very different way of assigning work than how it was done before by the Big Blue/ IBM of 1970s. On the collaboration front, it is exciting to see the examples of IBM’s alliance with Apple that would have been unthinkable only a few years ago.

The deliverable is the product, service, or project that the client receives, that may include creating a smartphone app, designing an ad campaign, reading an X-ray and any other product. 

According to the fascinating treatment of this new work environment in "Lead The Work" by John Boudreau, Ravin Jesuthasan, and David Creelman ( Wiley, 2015)  the new organization becomes  permeable, interlinked, collaborative and flexible. What work really looks like  is the network of organizing relationships between the jobs to be done, the workers and the clients. If there are several parties involved, such as an alliance partner or talent platform or a group of individual contractors to the project, how do these parties govern themselves, collaborate, share information, manage risk, and make decisions?

Take  Rewards. The workers receive both intrinsic and extrinsic rewardssuch as money, learning, experience, sense of pride, status etc. From the timing perspective, rewards are moving towards shorter term, individualized and imaginative. As the traditional rewards: pay, benefits, security are being ensured through the platforms, less traditional elements such as prestige, purpose, spirituality, fun, and reputation are coming to play a biggerrole in the new organizational set up.

It is clear that free agents compete for reputation,  not just cash. Tinglers, for example,  work for the unprecedented creative freedom. Uber drivers ( and passengers) are rightly concerned about their star ratings. Your reputation equals your jobs. 

The Role of HR

Where do we even start the conversation about the internal administrative function that HR used to be?

The new economy is HR's real challenge and real opportunity.  Can the profession, in its current state, lead through these new organizational arrangements, learn new skills and step up to the consulting role to the business?

The good news is that HR is not going away; it has an important strategic role to play in helping leaders navigate the new reality of work. There are legal and transactional implications to the work done in the permeable, interlinked, collaborative, and flexible work systems. And there is a lot more that HR needs to know and embrace to effectively partner with business leaders in the world beyond employment.

To start, the language of “employees” and “jobs” has to go away, performance and rewards need to be reconfigured, and the name for the function itself, human resources, will need an upgrade. There is  a very specific agenda for HR to reimagine its own function, including the possibility that most HR workers will become the contractors themselves  coming in from the talent platform.   HR professionals must embrace the new economy and step up to the leadership challenge as experts, architects, engineers and the orchestrators of the “boundary-less global workplace.”

With the help of technology and data, HR will be able to do wonders in the complex environment of work, and yet  the function must retain its “soul,” looking after the sustainability, balance, and spirituality of the free-agent world. “If HR progress accelerates through rigor, humanism, and collaboration, the HR profession will rightfully maintain and extend its stature into a world beyond employment.”

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Anna Tavis, Ph.D., is a senior organizational consultant and executive coach with an extensive global practice in business, academia, and consulting. Anna’s corporate career spans a broad variety of industries, including financial services, technology, manufacturing. and pharmaceutical firms. Most recently, her consulting practice expanded in the nonprofit sector. She has held senior leadership positions with Motorola, Nokia, United Technologies, AIG, and BBH. Anna is academic program director at Columbia University. She is the founder of GlobalLabPlus (globallabplus.com) and serves as an adjunct instructor at New York University. She is also Perspectives Editor for the People + Strategy journal. Anna an be reached at aatavis@gmail.com or on Twitter @annatavis.