A firm believer in the power of leveraging the intersection of media, technology, and education to empower individuals, Harjiv Singh, Founder & CEO, BrainGain Global, is a serial entrepreneur. With more than 20 years of experience in business, entrepreneurship, politics, teaching, and nonprofits, Harjiv has co-founded companies such as Gutenberg Communications and MDOffices.com.
Having earned his master’s degree in International Affairs from Columbia University and an MBA from the New York Institute of Technology, Harjiv also worked at GE Capital, a New York City hedge fund and Priceline. He picked up on the pulse of various organizations and understood what makes them successful.
Even though he is passionate about the power of education and technology in empowering people, he is also a political junkie and has previously worked as a campaign advisor to an Indian parliamentarian and also volunteered on Michael Bloomberg’s first mayoral campaign in New York City.
In an exclusive interaction with People Matters, Harjiv Singh talks about innovative ways of managing a gig workforce, the defining moments of 2019, and the way forward for the gig economy in the context of the education-technology sector.
While most organizations have been slow in adopting gig work models as of yet, it’s an approach that the majority of business leaders are considering. How do you think the market is currently faring when it comes to adopting gig work models?
The gig economy isn’t a new concept. During the last twenty years, we’ve seen the emergence of businesses staffed almost entirely by freelancers. You also have Fortune 500 companies innovating on open-source crowd platforms, in addition to new technologies like Artificial Intelligence solving challenges. Especially during the last decade, the gig economy has been driven by such technologies, which effectively mediate interactions between consumers and providers. Given these trends, freelance skills and crowdsourcing will undoubtedly become a standard part of operating budgets. Recent research indicates that almost a third of workers around the world identify as freelancers and the numbers are rising.
India alone has lakhs of freelancers operating through online marketplaces and may become a key leader in the shared economy model of employment in the Asia-Pacific. The Indian gig economy has the capacity to grow up $20-30 Bn in the next six years. We have a thriving startup ecosystem that’s fuelling the gig economy by hiring talent across industries. Take the example of taxi aggregators. Virtually anyone who can drive can sign up on these platforms and secure high-paying gigs. Such a model offers employers enormous benefits, especially considering the challenge of attracting and retaining talent. But freelancing also benefits workers by offering autonomy and flexibility without the occupational hazards of a salaried job. Governments need to act on these changing attitudes towards work and make necessary policy changes. The gig economy could be an effective remedy to counter jobless growth. At the same time, it is important to note that the gig model is yet to penetrate rural India.
What challenges do you expect to emerge as the gig economy grows?
Three challenges come to mind. The first is that given the flexible nature of the gig economy, freelancers and contract workers are likely to earn less than regular employees. This was also indicated by a recent TIME magazine survey, which showed that many employers hire contractors to reduce costs. Freelance and contract workers must also deal with the lack of security since there are no employment rights of much significance. Finally, there is the sheer time and effort that being a gig worker demands. Freelancers and contractors are entirely responsible for marketing their services, engaging with clients, and managing their contracts and finances. All these tasks eat into the time that it takes to generate income.
Hiring, managing, and retaining freelancers is a daunting task. How can technology help managers and HR leaders manage their workforce?
Technology has significantly altered workforce behavior over the last couple of decades. It has made it easier to hire specialized talent at low labor costs. It also allows organizations to reduce rent expenses. Communication technologies have aided the rise of remote working. You also have digital tools that help maximise productivity, streamline operations, and reduce compliance risks. Take the case of vendor management systems. These allow managers to seamlessly tap into a vast pool of gig talent and track suppliers, workers, and deliverables to effectively maximise productivity.
What role does a gig workforce play in a global organization like that of BrainGain where educators, entrepreneurs, professionals, students, and parents work through the same platform?
As an ed-tech start-up, headquartered in New York, we have teams across four countries in fields like design, content, editorial, marketing, and sales. The world is our oyster and we can hire excellent people across geographies, rather than limiting ourselves.
How has your experience been in managing a gig workforce and balancing business and people goals, simultaneously?
In a digital world, it is a lot easier to manage teams than it was a decade ago. Tools like Zoom, Slack, and WhatsApp make it much simpler to manage disparate teams globally. Technology has made it much easier to ensure seamless communication and coordination between the gig workforce and full-time employees.
Any particular advice/recommendations for HR leaders, people managers, etc when managing a new-age gig workforce?
The gig economy requires managers and HR leaders to don a new hat. The success of such a setup requires structure and discipline. Managers need to ensure smooth interactions between their contract workers and their regular employees, while simultaneously upholding their organization’s legal and business interests. Gig and contract workers shouldn’t simply be treated as temporary employees. Leaders must take the effort to include and involve them in the organization. That said, gig workers and full-time employees are two categories of workers that require different management approaches. To effectively balance these, it is necessary to set realistic expectations with everyone involved and ensure that you stick to them. It is also vital for HR to create the right kind of organizational culture that accommodates the interests of gig workers and can act as the head of the company’s gig talent.
THE YEAR THAT WAS
What are some of the major people trends that have redefined the workplace in 2019?
We are on the cusp of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, so we are witnessing a shift towards greater human-machine collaboration. We’ve seen this extensively in some industries like manufacturing, where robots have enabled human workers to transcend key limitations. Across industries, machines are gradually taking over more repetitive tasks, leaving human workers with less routine tasks. Roles must now be redefined to combine the efficiency of machines with the deep expertise of human workers. And like we saw earlier, the social contract between employers and workers has dramatically changed with the arrival of the gig economy. We need a complete redesigning of existing talent models to match the skills of workers with organizational needs.
In the online learning and education sector, can you share some of the challenges that were unique to 2019?
In terms of online education, we see that students who learn best through independent study tend to outperform those who choose interpersonal education. A lack of teacher-student interaction is a key reason for this and tends to hamper growth.
How can leaders equip themselves in order to tackle these challenges in a better way?
One solution to this is to combine online learning with classroom settings or even networking events. This is where blended or experiential learning comes in. Cohort-based experiential learning is a powerful way to learn. Leaders must adapt to the changing environment where the digital component is concerned. It is important to learn about collaborative technology and acquire the ability to use these tools effectively.
What are some of the learning and technology trends that people leaders need to watch out for in 2020?
The global spending on online education is projected to touch $350 Bn by 2025. The global education market is expected to grow from 6 trillion to 10 trillion by 2030. Less than three percent is digitized. By 2030, India will be amongst the youngest nations in the world, with nearly 140 million people in the college-going age group. We can expect to see higher education institutions boost the adoption of cloud-based technologies for learning management systems, student relationship management, and assessment management. We can also expect greater video adoption given the spurt in video consumption. Students prefer consuming videos to extensive reading since it involves less effort and guarantees greater retention.
Among the new-gen technologies (AI, ML, RPA, blockchain), which one are you most excited to use in 2020 and why? Share examples of use cases too.
At BrainGain Global, we will use AI and ML for areas like chatbots and personalised learning companions for lifelong learning. I look forward to seeing the role AI and ML will play in customer engagement.