In the Desert on a Horse with No Name – Reflections on the IQNsiders Conference, Talent Pools and the Shimmering Future of Contingent Workforce Management

IQNavigator’s recent client conference in Phoenix, Arizona, where Jason Busch and I saddled up earlier in the month, provided a perfect environment for attendees' further thinking about the changes, challenges and opportunities that are now emerging in the services procurement category of contingent workforce management.

  • Being between a rock and a hard place may not be the right metaphor to describe the current situation of contingent workforce management practioners, but it’s solid. Contingent workforce management practices, processes, infrastructures, etc., are – in actuality – at a rather early stage of development/maturity, with the pushing forward of adoption and expansion of basic core programs likely being the foremost priority of nearly all practioners. At the same time, the category of contingent workforce management – already one of unusual complexity, because it deals with arranging unique human-based services – is rapidly being confronted with a broad-set of technology-related and other forces that are now beginning to (a) drive transformation (and possibly real disruption) and (b) push practioners to deal with a whole new set of challenges and opportunities outside of the scope of current programmatic goals.
  • While not the contingent workforce management equivalent of Burning Man, IQNsiders was probably a mind-altering experience for most, if not all, of the attendees. Much less a traditional, rote “annual client/user conference,” IQNsiders 2015 was more of a gathering of contingent workforce ecosystem constituents (contingent workforce buyers, HR executives, MSPs, various service/technology enabling partners) engaged in a dynamic, collaborative process of not just examining and sharing current challenges and best practices, which was done. But to a much greater degree, participants were invited (a) to grapple with the critical trends and developments that are already happening and (b) to effectively begin planning for and dealing with them. Based on my discussions with large number of participants throughout and at the concluding parts of the event, it seemed those outcomes were widespread.

Though I have a whole long list (which will inform future posts I’ll be writing on the evolution of contingent workforce management), these are 3 key observations I came away with from the event:

  • From rigid staffing supply chain to adaptive, sustainable workforce ecosystem. IQ Navigator has pretty much laid its cards on the table and has revealed where it is placing its big bets for future. The largest independent VMS SaaS software provider is committed to moving forward, with its current and future customers/users and a growing digitally connected ecosystem of partners, to transform itself from being a “limited-thread” staffing enterprise/supply chain management system to what I understand as a “many-sided” (hub-like) contingent workforce management platform that will support ongoing optimization of current contingent workforce solutions and enable the evolution of new contingent workforce solutions beyond “temp staffing” and “SOW” based on evolution of contingent workforce supply and demand sides. Talking about a shift from a system of record to a system of engagement is only a start to describe the breadth of this transformation, which is not just developing the software, but creating a whole new service delivery ecosystem. There is already survey data that indicates that buyers and suppliers are anticipating that new channels of sourcing and engaging contingent workforce are taking shape and become more important. The technological basis for such digital platforms and service ecosystems clearly exists – the remaining question is how quickly they can take shape and how pervasive they may become.
  • Talent pools now open – the water looks great and divers and swimmers are already in. While a number of key technology-related topics were also emphasized at the event (including the criticality of user experience (UX), data and predictive analytics, open API architecture), the one which seemed to me to – appropriately – get the most focus was talent pools. Like UX (and very much related), talent pools (a whole topic unto themselves) are a new “peer-to-peer economic construct” that are inextricably based on current technologies. Talent pools essentially allow populations/sub-segments of individual workers to become digitally (a) affiliated along a scale of association, (b) easily discoverable and richly knowable and (c) efficiently/relatively directly engageable in work arrangements. As such, contingent workforce can be variously deployed to meet the growing demand for flexible labor or and specialized skills across a range of modalities (on-demand, very short interval, globally sourced, online/as-a-service fulfillment, etc.). Over just the past few years, we have begun actual offerings and implementations of talent pools. A number of providers are now enabling talent pools with different supporting technology-based capabilities (some examples: Work Market, Elance-oDesk Private Talent Clouds, now IQNavigator, et al), and are in the early stages of adoption by fairly large enterprises. We should assign a high level of confidence to this new organism continuing to evolve, expand and play a critical role in the emergence of a digital contingent workforce ecosystem. In other words, it is not a mirage, and it’s probably safe to test the waters.
  • The post-industrial, digital future of contingent workforce management. After attending IQNsiders 2015, I came away convinced that today there were few more exciting business areas to be in than contingent workforce management. Now I can understand the skepticism of those who might ask if I was smoking something in the desert last week: Contingent workforce management as a business discipline has grown out of industrial procurement assumptions and objectives, know-how and methods – focused first and foremost on control and second on enablement. The traditional focus on control is itself a very good thing, because it sets a very high bar for practioners in terms of management rigor (one which contingent workforce managers must carry forward as they implement their core programs today and as they begin to address what lies ahead as innovators in their businesses). However, contingent workforce managers, whether they realize this fully or not, are at the leading edge of the transformation of their enterprises. In a sense, procurement always has been at this leading edge, insofar as it is the architect of the most open “interfaces” of the firm and the enabler of exchange of vital resources and services that lie outside the boundaries of the firm. Contingent workforce management – again, a new business discipline – will be challenged to architect and build new models for engaging and utilizing that most critical and complex resource and service of all: human capital and applied capabilities. It is important for practioners to realize this and embrace it. Doing so, however, may require some (a) evolution beyond the established scope of the industrial heritage and (b) crossing new frontiers with the acquisition of new know-how (like technology, et al) and management capabilities (like leadership competencies/confidence, et al). This professional development will be supported and accelerated by openness to and increased reliance on and interdependence with the emerging contingent workforce ecosystem.

Call it contingent workforce management, total talent management, the digital human capital ecosystem. Call it what you will – it won’t matter – but the journey we make together and the destination we arrive at will. That was my main takeaway from IQNsiders 2015.

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