Agile Talent6 minute read

Welcome to the Talent Economy

Deep expertise has never been more in demand—or harder to find. Jon Younger, founder of the Agile Talent Collaborative, examines how agile talent has reinvented the relationship between worker and workplace, enabling organizations to tap the global talent “cloud.”

Jon Younger

Jon Younger

Jon is the founder of the Agile Talent Collaborative, a non-profit cooperative that leads research to define best practice for agile talent.


Welcome to the talent economy. There has never been a time when real expertise was more in demand, more valuable, and more rare. Research by Anders Ericsson and others, informed by real life organizational experience, remind us of the “10,000 hour rule.” Real expertise, based on deep skill and experience, is a powerful force multiplier for performance. It delivers a multiple of value versus individuals or teams that haven’t been there, done that, missed sleep or scraped their knees and elbows on a tough deadline.

In a recent survey of CEO’s, the consulting firm PwC noted that expertise was a key choke point for 70% of the companies these executives led.

The power and importance of deep expertise will only grow in the foreseeable future. In a recent survey of CEO’s, the consulting firm PwC noted that expertise (defined as “talent”) was a key choke point for 70% of the companies these executives led. But that’s only the part of the demand iceberg that is visible above the waterline. GEM – the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor - estimates that a staggering 50 million startups will be launched globally in the coming year, driven primarily by individuals between 25 and 34 years of age. Every one of the companies they will create is in need of expert engineers, programmers, product designers, marketing and sales professionals, and project managers who bring skill sets essential to the growth and profitability of these new companies.

In years past, for example, as recently as 2001 when McKinsey consultants published their iconic book, “The War for Talent,” this would be a daunting challenge. The focus of that book was how the best organizations attract, develop and retain outstanding full-time talent. Can you imagine the difficulty most startups would face competing with the deep pockets and outsized reputation of big tech companies like Google, Microsoft, and Apple, or cash rich old economy giants like Shell Oil, Goldman Sachs, and Pfizer? Startups naturally have a hard time of it:

  • Well-known and wealthy companies have the ability to pay more to attract excellent young or experienced talent.
  • They are able to offer a greater number of perks unavailable to all but the best funded startups.
  • The best known convey more opportunity; working at Facebook or Snapchat is thought to offer a “golden ticket” in terms of career prestige. Without the funding or buzz, newcos are at a distinct disadvantage.

How the blended workforce changes the talent equation

Community and collaborative technologies have now made it possible to bust through the limitations facing both startups and growing organizations as they compete for expertise, by enabling them to access experts from literally all over the world. Organizations no longer operate in a choice of full-time employment or go home. Innovative platforms like Toptal have fundamentally and profoundly changed the nature of competition for expertise by creating the guilds of the 21st century, able to literally scour the globe to provide organizations with the absolute right expert to meet that challenge, opportunity, or need.

By establishing and widening the global network of expert, experienced, and accessible agile talent, Toptal and others have made it possible for organizations to access the best talent in the world on a flexible and cost efficient basis, and join internal and external resources in common cause. In doing so, they are able to provide both old and new economy organizations with a powerful source of competitive advantage, what we and others have called the “blended workforce.”.

We already see the blended workforce in action in many organizations: full-time professionals working virtually or physically together, side by side, with the best freelancers (or as we’ve named them, “agile talents”) in many technical and functional areas, to achieve a common goal. In a recent study by my Agile Talent Collaborative, HR leaders in Silicon Valley forecasted the growth of the 50/50 workforce, where 50% of organization members are, in fact, temporary and external.

The emergence of the blended workforce changes many things.

  • It creates a unique opportunity for small companies to access big talent.
  • It makes it possible for startups to scale up fast.
  • It provides a way for more traditional organizations or governments to attract the best technical experts on a project basis, people these organizations could not ordinarily attract.
  • And, it enables organizations outside the geographic mainstream – for example, NGO research organizations in Kenya or Bangladesh - to remotely engage outstanding professionals that may live thousands of miles and several time zones away.

What outcomes will the blended workforce make possible?

First, one can reasonably anticipate a powerful ramp up in performance. Organizations where teams have combined the best possible internal and external expertise are far more likely to achieve their goals. An organization may not wish or need to hire external experts on a full-time basis, and may not be able to attract them. But, they are accessible on a project basis, particularly if the project is one that they find intrinsically interesting.

Second, we look forward to continued growth in innovation. The top agile talents provided through a platform like Toptal don’t just bring their knowledge and insight. They are mentors to the junior internal professionals who are working with them. They are “Johnny Appleseeds”, sharing the innovative methods they have developed or gained from their work with other organizations, and the best practices of the various companies with whom they’ve worked. And, as such, they are confidence builders who, by having been there, done that, provide a technical safety net for organizations who are eager to find a better way.

Third, the blended workforce is a speed igniter. Organizations currently spend too much time trying to find and hire the right professional for the work, or retraining their current employees to have the skills to meet emerging project needs. Agile talent provides an alternative to the time and expense of recruiting, and the inevitable Type I errors of bad hires costing additional time, cost, and disruption. Agile talent platforms reduce time to performance, as well as delivering resources that deliver the exact expertise and experience the organization needs.

Fourth, agile talent makes it possible to create a more cost efficient total workforce. By avoiding permanent headcount where it’s not needed, avoiding the additional cost of hiring on a project rather than a career basis, the organization is able to bring on board the true expertise needed at lower overall cost and to reduce the time, effort, and cost of replacing critical resources.

The importance of organizational and cultural alignment

We see big gains in all of these areas – performance, innovation, speed, and cost efficiency – captured through agile talent and the blended workforce. But, tuning an organization to the blended workforce also provides powerful collateral benefits. Making agile talent an ongoing part of how the organization resources work requires leaders to create a culture and work systems that reinforce trust and collaboration (rather than suspicion) between internal and external contributors.

It challenges organization leaders to be more strategic in the identification of project goals and milestones. It requires greater discipline in resourcing decisions, and more focus on the skills required for success. It also requires rigorous performance monitoring, assessment, and feedback. In other words, the decision to access agile talent on a sustained basis encourages the very practices that consequently drive greater teamwork and performance.

By releasing work from the limitations of geography and time zone, agile talent has reinvented the relationship between worker and workplace, making it possible for organizations to tap the global talent “cloud” or ecosystem on a project basis or to address a specific challenge for which a given organization is unequipped but in acute or chronic need. In doing so, Toptal and other agile talent platforms are at the front line of reshaping organizations and careers in future, and redefining how we resource work and innovation.

As Rainer Stack said in his recent TED talk, The Workforce Crisis of 2030 – and How to Start Solving It Now, “High-skilled people, talents, will be the big thing in the next decade.” We agree. It is an exciting time, a time of unparalleled creativity in delivering the expertise organizations need to grow and prosper. We’re only just beginning to see where it will take us.

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