Lou Gerstner, former president of IBM, and many other business leaders of today have already dubbed the first half of 21st Century the Internet and knowledge era. They explain that the Internet is about competition, growth and reaching out to customers and that real time access to information is the key business differentiator.

We are more inclined to agree with Will Hutton, chief executive of Britain’s The Industrial Society. Hutton states that while we don’t yet fully understand the rules and dynamics of the new era we do know it is turning the workplace inside out. He asserts we are entering a network economy that is driven by information and communications technologies and that the network will increasingly be made up of independent workers who will change the employer/employee relationship.

The Empowered Worker

Viking Electronics – Free Catalog Already more than 30 million U.S. workers are free agent contract workers. Over the next few years Charles Handy, author of The Age of Unreason, estimates that less than ½ of the industrial world’s workforce will hold conventional full-time jobs in companies. Every year, more and more people will be self-employed and full-time insiders will be the minority.

In the 19th Century and first half of the 20th Century there was a real or implied promise that the corporation would provide employees with job security and career progression in return for loyalty and commitment. But in today’s competitive environment firms have to restructure, outsource, downsize, subcontract and form new alliances to survive. To maintain their competitive edge companies are travelling lighter, covering ground more quickly. Management has quickly found that the organization has to constantly accelerate or die. The company that is lean, agile and quick to respond has the edge.

Competition, technology, recession and increased shareholder value are constantly driving the firms to the point where everyone believes the old company/employee loyalty and commitment is rapidly disappearing.

Given this environment it is little wonder that the new free agent worker is becoming the mainstay of the workforce and is doing what is important for his or her career. Far from being “me” oriented, this rapidly growing workforce understands that the best way to enhance their intellectual, social and professional capital is to constantly network and constantly move forward. Just as the rapidly changing world deals ruthlessly with organizations that don’t change, the new breed of contract employee is quickly learning that the blur of ambiguity is good for their career.

Dealing With the Legacy

They are exploiting the flexibility, capacity and capability of the Internet to allow them to work in totally different ways with the “legacy” parts of the economy.

Because of this firms are going to great lengths to recruit, pay and keep employees happy. A new class of job brokers and talent scouts have emerged with employee search firms growing twice as fast as the U.S. economy. Check any print or online issue of the business or trade publications you receive. There will always be two to three articles on recruiting and job enhancement.

Look at the on-line and print classifieds. Listen to what companies and search firms are offering. The attention is on a stimulating work environment, relaxed dress codes, attention to work/life issues and a fun place to work. Firms that fall short in these areas know they will lose the best people…the people they need to survive and grow.

The empowered independent worker knows the ground rules have changed in the employer/employee relationship. They have quickly learned how easy it is to network in much the same fashion as the trade guilds of the 18th Century.

Forget unions. The new contract worker has a better infrastructure – the Internet network. A growing number of portals are available for them to share job, company, work, relationship experiences and information information tocontrol their own growth and destiny.

The global communication technology is radically changing the speed, direction and amount of information flow even as it alters work rolls across all organizations. The new free agent worker is creating role clarity for himself and herself. They figure out the top priorities and point themselves in that direction. They don’t pull back. They don’t wait for someone to give them details or marching orders. They give themselves permission to attach to the job. They feel their way along to the future. They are willing to “wing it.” They have reduced improvising to an art form. They accept the fact that work life is fuzzy around the edges.

They are confident that organizations aren’t going to look out for people’s careers as they did in the past. Because of this, it’s increasingly important to behave like you’re in business for yourself…you are.

Today’s “employees” have to build emotional muscle. As Lily Tomlin once said, “we’re all in this alone.”

Practice Kaizen

Given the working world shift people have to continuously practice Kaizen – the relentless quest for a better way, higher quality craftsmanship, daily pursuit of perfection. Kaizen keeps you reaching, stretching to outdo yesterday. These incremental changes yield a valuable competitive advantage.

You need to assume personal responsibility for upgrading your performance. Your productivity, response time, quality, cost control and customer service should show steady gains.

The era of entitlement is past.

People aren’t automatically entitled to pay increases, promotions or their job…even if they perform well.

The new empowered free agent worker is taking responsibility for his and her own career…and future. These guild workers are forcing companies to personalize contracts as firms bid for their knowledge. With unemployment at record lows and flexible/flattened organizations a key to corporate agility the free agent workforce isn’t an anomaly.

It’s the environment organizations will work in tomorrow…and its here today.

By G.A. “Andy” Marken
Marken Communications Inc.