An elastic workforce model may remain after the recession

While reliance on consultants may be a logical outgrowth of the recession, don't be surprised if the trend toward a strong contingency workforce outlasts the recovery. The recent explosion of business technology means you now need access to a range of independent contractors, consulting firms, managed services and other experts for a variety of unpredictable demands that may strain even the most skilled full-time staff. Many, therefore, are finding that it makes sense to supplement their team with a pool of experts with specific skills that can be called upon on an as-needed basis.

Early in the recession, in the wake of widespread IT layoffs, there was a spike in demand for independent IT consultants. On the surface it appeared to be a natural function of reduced budgets -- hire the temps for now, and when the economy rebounds, ramp up the full-time staff. What people failed to see at the time, but is apparent now, is that we were also at the cusp of a major upheaval in business technology characterized by terms like "consumerization of IT," the "social enterprise." These changes are driven by factors such as the introduction of new flexible technologies, the ability of any group of two or more people to communicate in real time, and globalization, to name a few.

The most tangible outgrowth of it all is that now in business, things are moving fast, and getting faster by the minute.  Cloud-based infrastructure -- which can be implemented in weeks, modified on the fly, and abandoned just as quickly -- is both fueling this acceleration, and helping companies keep up with it. The skills you need your IT and even business line staff to have may vary from week to week making it difficult to rely completely on full-timers the way you used to. In order to compete, CIOs will need to supplement their full-time staff with a sizable contingency of specialists that can map technologies to very specific and immediate needs.

Now indications are that we're in a tech boom, which always makes it more difficult to secure top talent. However, the specialization required now means that there's going to be even more competition for candidates with the kind of skills I've been describing, making the prospect of hiring these folks full-time even more bleak. For example, my firm's 2012 IT salary guide shows demand spiking in several categories that fit this description, such as front-end developers and CRM developers.

The specific skills you'll need vary business to business, but here are a few things to keep in mind as you build your elastic workforce:

  • Look for specialists with tightly honed skills in your specific area of need. When it comes to form-fitting the technology to the business, it's as important to understand the business as it is the technology. So you may want to develop a relationship with someone, for example, who understands the software and the ins and outs of marketing as a business function that can be pulled in when necessary, but that you don't have to pay to be on hand all the time. Such skill set combinations are pretty rare, so this person might demand an very high salary if you were to bring them on full time.
  • Look for consultants with people skills. While soft skills are becoming more important across the board for IT, they're particularly important for the consultants who make up the "elastic" portion of your workforce. While full-time IT staff may have time to schmooze and overcome any natural personality barriers that keep them from clearly communicating with other departments, consultants have to get in and out pretty fast. This means that they've got to be able to quickly build a rapport with the various departments, and get to the root of what these folks need to do their jobs effectively. Obviously this means the kind of "IT as deity" pro Billie Blair described is out of the question.
  • Whether you are sizing up an independent consultant, a managed service provider, or consulting firm, look for a collaborative mindset. Consultants who go in and start dictating their wisdom to the "unwashed masses" won't just turn people off, they'll fundamentally fail in their objective, because they won't have  a clue as to what people really need. So, when you're looking for people, try to gauge what they've accomplished within teams, and not just as individuals. Also, pay close attention to signals of the strength of listening skills, and find out not just what they did for past clients, but how they worked with them to provide solutions.
  • "Elastic" doesn't always mean external -- look within your organization as well for people with specific expertise. When it comes to managing certain solutions, or offering expertise related to a specific business function, it may in some cases make sense to identify already with you that can serve on ad hoc teams as needed. For example, if your full-time staff isn't too strained, you might consider sponsoring team members on new developer certifications to round out your skills pool. Or, if someone from a non-IT department like marketing or sales has demonstrated technical prowess, you could get them supplemental tech training, and leverage their business expertise in tailoring solutions to departmental needs. In this way, you're building up an IT army reserve, so to speak.

Eric Berridge is co-founder and principal of agile business consulting firm Bluewolf, which provides lifecycle innovation, cloud implementations, IT staffing, managed services and other services to sync business and IT for efficient, adaptive performance. He also co-authored the book "Iterate or Die" along with Bluewolf co-founder Michael Kirven.

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