When I first came across the term Gig Economy, I thought it was something to do with gigabytes; i.e., the digital economy. As I investigated further (aka googled), I learned that the term derives from a more conventional parlance: gig as in "a paid job". Originally used in a musical sense, for example, "My band has a gig at the Blue Frog next week" — the gig economy has come to mean an economy run by individuals offering their services for payment for a limited time. They are not employed but freelancing on contract. But digital, combined with mobile, are the key to enabling the gig economy — they connect the service provider with the organization seeking the service, link supply with demand, and through aggregation, spawn a price point for a mutually beneficial exchange.
Our VUCA world has provided the perfect context for the gig economy to advance. When the future is volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous, organizations don't want to make any long-term employment commitments. What if their business is disrupted next month or next year? What if they need an entirely new skill set, which their current talent cannot or will not embrace? What if their customers, influenced by some viral social media buzz, move away from satisfactory products and services toward the next new fad? What if they are forced to reinvent themselves? "What if" scenarios are rife in a VUCA world! And when organizations struggle to understand what will happen tomorrow, they will favour flexibility in the decisions they make today. Permanent employment is too rigid, too expensive (including less visible costs like insurance, pension, gratuity, etc.); and companies need temporary cost-effective solutions. The gig economy offers precisely that flexibility — corporations get to choose the service they need in the here and now, and they get to stop its use and replace it with a different service tomorrow, next week, or next month. They pay for what they get and they stop paying when they don’t want it anymore.
So, as far as organizations are concerned, there are many benefits (and few costs) to leveraging the gig economy. Since much has already been written on that subject, I will focus on the gig economy in the context of the individual. How can you and I, not merely survive, but prosper in the gig economy? In his book, The Elephant and the Flea, Charles Handy contends that our education has prepared us to seek lifetime employment in an “elephant” company. He uses “elephant” as a metaphor for solid, known brand corporations. Many of us can relate to our own formal education, a bulk of which was designed to enhance our knowledge (and to prove it by regurgitating it in the ‘correct’ format in examinations). Good marks translated into better opportunities, a good job, with "good" usually referring to a company that was large, dependable, and a well-known brand. In short, our education prepared us to become cogs in the wheels of “elephant” companies, rising through the ranks to our own special level of incompetence! And, perhaps, that would have been defined as “success” in our grandparent’s generation. But the world has changed…
Organizations find you and me more dispensable. We must continually prove our worth and, like the “flea” (to persist with Handy’s metaphor) learn how and when to jump to another “elephant.” Individuals in a gig economy must figure out ways to enhance employability versus seeking employment. They must take responsibility for their own careers. This imperative applies equally to full-time employees working in “elephant” companies and to freelancers seeking ‘gigs’ among a variety of clients and firms. It’s amazing that Handy had the foresight to anticipate the gig economy two decades before it became as ubiquitous as it is today.
So, how can you be successful in a gig economy despite the potential baggage of a moribund education that has set you up with expectations that are out of sync with reality? Let me share the ways and throw in an acronym that will prompt your recall.
- C is for Continuous Learning: You learned a lot in school and college and maybe, in a past era, showing-off those certificates was sufficient to get you successive promotions in your job. But in a gig economy, you cannot rest on learning laurels of the past. On the contrary, you need those learning antennae constantly on the alert to anticipate change. That can happen only when you devote time to read voraciously, use online resources, enrol in MOOCs (massive open online courses) — there is no dearth of opportunities to expand your knowledge and understanding of the world around you. T-shaped skills (developing a wide breadth of knowledge with depth in one specialization) have given way to Pi-shaped skills (breadth of knowledge with TWO areas of specialization) and now, there is pressure to build Comb-shaped skills (Multiple specializations even as you continue to invest in generalist knowledge)! The key is to be versatile: to have the capability and flexibility to switch from one field to another in line with fickle unpredictable demand. If you want personal growth, you must cultivate the habit of continuous learning.
- A is for Agile Mindset: They say it is not enough to work hard, you must work smart. Developing an agile mindset is a smart way to work. The best condition for innovation is at the cross-section of different disciplines and agile is about working in cross-functional teams. Agile is non-hierarchical, open to change, rejecting the inertia of the status quo. Agile is taking risks, failing fast (and learning how to pivot), being flexible versus rigid, responding with speed, and always prioritizing value to the client. An agile mindset welcomes transformation. For success in the gig economy, embrace the agile mindset.
- N is for Networking: Developing breadth and depth in your network of acquaintances, colleagues, and friends is more important than ever in a gig economy where you are responsible for marketing yourself. Leverage social media to enhance your network. Your network makes you more visible — it gets your foot in the door. Your network also contributes to your continuous learning: much of what we learn stems from the company we keep.
- C.A.N. (Continuous learning, Agile mindset, Networking): This is the beginning of a mnemonic for success in a gig economy. But CAN is incomplete without adding an “I” at the front: I CAN. I is for Identity, that distinctive something that makes you unique. “I” means I will invest time to discover my individual passion. I will persevere to gain mastery in that passion so that others can benefit from the value I will add. If Networking gets my foot in the door; Identity propels me into the room to stake my claim! I CAN – is an acronym and also, an attitude. Being positive, motivated, willing to try new things, take risks, demonstrating your individuality – all these and more are expressed through the I CAN attitude!
And so you have it: a roadmap to flourish in the gig economy! If I CAN, then, surely, so can you!
(The views expressed are personal.)