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I ended my initial post on this topic with a pointer to the so-called “freelance economy”. In this post I want to take this thread further, as I think it can shed light into the future of employment.

What I was implying at the end of my initial post is that reducing or even doing away with “middleman” corporate hierarchies in a post-materialistic, fluid economy of ideas doesn’t lead to anarchy. Rather it logically leads to a “freelance economy”, a world where, in British management philosopher Charles Handy’s words, free-floating freelancer “fleas” service multiple corporate “elephants” following the need for their specific talents.

In the HBR article “Rethinking the Decision Factory” Roger Martin highlights the “binge and purge” hiring practices that Handy’s elephants are experiencing due to the disconnect between industrial era inherited hierarchies focused on material outcomes and knowledge work.  Martin sees a solution to these talent-alienating practices in the refocusing of work around projects, which, by virtue of their fluidity, would give elephants renewed agility. This is not unlike the idea behind the so-called “matrixed organization” where work is assigned by project managers that cut across vertical functional hierarchies.

I agree with Martin that project focused organizations are likely to see a reduction in “busy work” type situations, but, in my own experience, projects can themselves be gamed. Harder to game is problem solving. When elephants have real problems, the freelancer flea can supply the “just in time” manufacturing equivalent in the form of a highly specific solution. The “binge and purge” problem is non-existent in a world where fleas are hired by elephants to solve punctual problems with finite time-spans and performance based outcomes.

Getting all the way back to middlemen, we may still need them in the future. Even in a world where fleas are prolific, they may be hard to notice by elephants. Enter companies like the Business Talent Group (BTG) which congregate fleas of various skills into quickly scalable pools of talent ready to fit the shape and size of any unorthodox problem a corporate elephant may stumble upon when navigating the complex landscape of 21st century business.

Looking further down the road, I see a world where even enlightened middlemen of the BTG type are superceded by self-organizing “fleas”. These could self-service areas of strategy and operations and might only bear a vague resemblace to the now bygone elephants in terms of a legal “corporate” statute.