The ideal corporate employee is a freelancer

If you want to be a better corporate employee, act more like a freelancer.

That seems to be the message in a recent report by IBM. The company has been surveying CEOs every two years since 2004. The result of this year’s poll – of 1,700 CEOs in 64 countries – is Leading Through Connections: Insights from the Global Chief Executive Officer Study.

The report starts by emphasizing that recent developments in technology, particularly social networking, are enabling collaboration like never before. Young employees have only known a world in which they constantly connect and communicate with friends and colleagues. Technology, says the report, has become “a driver of relationships and is creating entirely new ways of connecting innovators.”

Follow their lead, says the report. Companies need all their employees to be more collaborative, communicative, creative and flexible. They want workers who can quickly shift gears and learn new skills. “It’s virtually impossible for CEOs to find the future skills they will need – because

[those skills] don’t exist yet,” says the report. That’s why companies need employees that “can constantly re-invent themselves.”

Hello, Corporate America. Here I am! Those four attributes – collaboration, communication, creativity and flexibility – are what freelancing is all about.

However, these employers want to have it both ways. They want enterprising workers, but at the same time they want to own most of the fruits of that enterprise. For example, the report recommends that companies encourage workers to develop strong and extensive professional networks. But that’s because the corporation wants to use those networks. “Don’t underestimate the value of [employees’] social networks as both potential collaborators and prospective customers,” the report notes. In addition, “by turning the workforce into a market intelligence network, [companies are] expanding their ability to sense shifts and respond nimbly.”

My professional network is mine, thank you very much. In today’s world, it’s one of my most valuable assets, as Reid Hoffman points out in his recent book, The Start-Up of You. And it does in fact enable me to sense shifts and respond nimbly. Well-connected freelancers often spot trends sooner than our corporate counterparts. I and many of my freelance colleagues in the tech sector could tell the economy was on the upswing starting last spring, as publishers and corporations started to hire more contractors. The individual companies couldn’t be sure whether the spurt of business – and thus their need for freelancers – was just sporadic or isolated; we freelancers could see it happening across the board.

The report further recommends that companies “future proof” their employees by:

Creating teams of people from different specialties, expertise and backgrounds so employees can learn from each other.

Encouraging employees to learn new things by giving them new types of assignments. “Concentrate on experiential learning,” it says. “Broaden the range of situations and experiences that employees are exposed to.”

Hmmm, that sounds familiar. We freelancers are constantly taking on new projects, learning new things and working with different people in a variety of specialities. It’s not only more interesting, but the diversity of experience makes us more marketable.

At the same time, the report suggests ways to suck the value out of employees’ heads, all for the corporation’s own benefit, by:

Capturing knowledge in searchable repositories to share more broadly and enable social learning.

Trolling for the good ideas that employees get through their networks and collaboration with others, even with those outside the company.

This approach may be fair for young, entry-level employees who have as much to learn from the corporation as it has to learn from them. But at a certain point, employees take control of their own careers and don’t feel as indebted to their employer. After all, the old social contract – the employee gives her skill, talent and loyalty and the employer guarantees her a job for life – is gone. IBM, of all companies, should know, because it broke its own “no-layoff” policy more than 20 years ago. No corporation guarantees a job for any length of time, much less a lifetime, so why should employees so freely share hard-earned knowledge, professional networks and ideas?

I agree with the report’s premise that today’s world needs more collaborative, communicative, creative and flexible workers. But they won’t likely be corporate employees, at least not for long. Rather, corporations will turn more and more to us freelancers. We’re here – ready, willing and able to handle the work required by the new economy. Give us a call.

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