A management professor explores the future of ‘workforce ecosystems’

You are the head of a marketing agency that wants to start offering TikTok services to its clients. Unfortunately, your company’s top executives have never used the app. You consider hiring someone, but then realize that many of your freelancers and contract workers — people who are already part of your larger workforce ecosystem — are TikTok enthusiasts.

By pairing them with more established staff in your organization, your agency can suddenly provide a valuable new service to clients.

As a guest editor of the MIT Sloan Management Review’s Future of the Workforce Big Ideas research initiative, Assoc. Management professor Elizabeth Altman heard such a story during an interview with a marketing executive about workforce ecosystems.

“That’s when I realized it was really about a different way of thinking about strategy,” says Altman, who teaches strategy and organizational theory in undergraduate, MBA and college programs. doctorate from the Manning School of Business.

Altman’s work, a joint multi-year research initiative with Deloitte Consulting, has produced a research paper and two reports — 2021’s “Workforce Ecosystems” and this year’s “Orchestrating Workforce Ecosystems” — and spawned a book that due out in the spring, “Workforce Ecosystems: Achieving Strategic Goals with People, Partners, and Technology” (MIT Press).

The research, Altman says, aims to help executives who seek an integrated approach to managing an increasingly less integrated workforce, through technology that enables new ways of working and roles that are increasingly focused on projects and results.

An engineer by training who spent nine years as a vice president at Motorola, Altman was asked to serve as a guest editor by David Kiron, editorial director of MIT Sloan Management Review and program manager for its Big Ideas research initiatives.

Photo by Adrien Bisson

Assoc. Management professor Elizabeth Altman’s research on workforce ecosystems has culminated in a book, “Workforce Ecosystems: Reaching Strategic Goals with People, Partners, and Technologies,” due out this spring.

“It’s amazing to work on a research topic that combines my experience in technology, strategy, innovation and platforms, and to be part of a conversation that resonates around the world,” said Altman, who was shortlisted for the Breakthrough Idea Award in 2021 by Thinkers50, a global ranking of management thinkers.

Altman recently sat down to discuss Workforce Ecosystems research, which involved interviewing thousands of managers and interviewing dozens of thought leaders and industry experts. from around the world, including executives from Amazon, Walmart, Unilever, the Mayo Clinic and NASA.

Q: What is a workforce ecosystem and how is it different from the workforce?

A: A workforce ecosystem includes full-time and part-time employees, as well as contractors, contractors, freelancers, and gig workers, within the organization and beyond. They work towards individual and collective goals, with interdependencies and complementarities between them, to create value for an organization. For example, if someone is driving to your house to deliver an Amazon package, even if they’re in an Amazon truck wearing an Amazon uniform, they probably don’t work for Amazon. They could work for a small, family-owned transportation company that Amazon has contracted out. A lot of companies use contractors, and there’s a whole world around outsourcing.

And then there are also companies often called add-ons, which can be, for example, app developers or accessory providers. For example, the Apple App Store lets you put Spotify on your phone. The people who created the Spotify app don’t work for Apple, but they did a lot of coding that makes Apple’s product better. So traditionally they wouldn’t be considered part of Apple’s workforce. But we would say they are part of the workforce ecosystem because they create value for Apple products.

And then we see a broad discussion of robotics, automation, software robots, and other technologies. Is this part of the workforce? Traditionally, we would say no. But we say it’s part of a workforce ecosystem. We interviewed a NASA man who said he gives his software bots employee ID numbers because it’s the only way they can access the data they need. They don’t issue them employee badges, but essentially they are in the database.

Q: How do workforce ecosystems play a role in business strategy?

A: Traditionally, business strategy comes first, then managers determine who and what they need to achieve their goals. With workforce ecosystem thinking, one can flip the script and say, “Given that we have access to these people, skills, and technologies, what kinds of business strategies can we engage in?” It is increasingly becoming an integral part of business strategy discussions, and people are becoming acutely aware that for any given business strategy, you need to think hard about how you are going to accomplish it. What should your workforce look like? Do not assume that you will hire mostly full-time employees to achieve your goals. Conversely, we do not assume that subcontracting or outsourcing is preferable. We say leaders need to be smart about who should do the work and through what relationships.

Q: Your 2022 report is titled “Orchestrating Workforce Ecosystems”. What are the challenges for companies trying to orchestrate a workforce ecosystem?

A: The first thing to recognize is that workforce ecosystems are often large and complex. And workers have their own individual goals, which must be balanced with company goals. If the organization only focuses on its goals and never thinks about the goals of those participants, it becomes unsustainable over time; they will go to work for other companies. And if this notion of interdependencies and complementarities is a more academic way of understanding ecosystems, that is what makes them an ecosystem. We don’t use the term “ecosystem” just because it’s a buzzword; it’s an ecosystem because of the interdependencies and complementarities among all the contributors, because they have common goals — and the connections and relationships between them that matter.

Q: You started this work in March 2020, at the start of the pandemic. How has the pandemic affected workforce ecosystems?

A: Trends towards workforce ecosystems were in play long before the pandemic and I believe they will remain so long after. There are other forces outside of the pandemic, such as expanding technologies and changing worker preferences, that are driving this situation. That said, there is no doubt that the pandemic has changed the way people think about work and the way organizations think about who works for them, where they work and how they work.

But in some ways, the move to remote and hybrid working kinda muddyes the water, because when I say, “Workforce ecosystems are the future of the workforce,” all the world assumes we’re talking about remote or hybrid work. But it’s not a matter of geographic location; you could have a contractor working from home or a contractor working in a building. On the other hand, people’s notion of where, how, when and why people work has become a much hotter topic, and that’s a good thing for someone researching on workforce ecosystems.

Q: Are there any risks that organizations need to be aware of when adopting a workforce ecosystem approach?

A: In our book, we have an extensive discussion of ethics and social responsibility and moral responsibilities. Workforce ecosystems highlight a wide range of issues on diversity, equity and inclusion, on power dynamics between workers and employers, and on benefits, families, health care, child care and care for the elderly. It’s different in different geographies; how this plays out in the United States may be different than countries where they have socialized medicine or different labor laws for contractors. But workforce ecosystems raise interesting policy questions.

Michael A. Bynum