Building ERGs for a World of Work Beyond Employment

Over the past few decades, employee networks have evolved from being affinity networks to being employee resource groups and business resource groups. Is it time for another step in that evolution?

At the Institute for Corporate Productivity March 2015 Conference in Scottsdale, Arizona, I had the pleasure of listening to USC Marshall School of Business Professor John Boudreau talk about his latest research into the future of work and his forthcoming book with Ravin Jesuthasan and David Creelman.

Boudreau shared two powerful examples of this new world of work, which is rapidly emerging. The first example focused on a company called TopCoder.

TopCoder provides computer program coders to companies that purchase their services. TopCoder has about 700 employees, but the products and the value it produces for clients are the result of the work of more than 700,000 people who, for the most part, are not directly employed by TopCoder. This is a huge shift from most past and current workforce models, in which the people who produce the products or services sold by a company are mostly if not entirely employees of the company selling the products or services.

Another example shared by Boudreau looked at the relationship between Siemens and Disney. Siemens, a massive German-based automation company that generates more than $6 billion in annual revenue, developed a hearing aid for children. Recognizing the expertise of its strategic partner Disney, Siemens opted to leverage its ally’s experience marketing to children instead of hiring new marketing-team members with this type of background.

The key thread throughout Boudreau’s presentation was that these types of work relationships and alliances (contractors, freelancers, outsourced labor, etc.) would continue to grow side-by-side with traditional employee relationships. This brings us to a question: If we take away the assumption that all work in organizations will be done by regular full-time employees, how will that fundamentally change our approach to HR and worker engagement? The answer, as Boudreau noted, is that, “A world beyond employment requires shifting many basic assumptions in HR, including the meaning, value and methods to achieve diversity and inclusion.”

After his presentation, I spoke to Boudreau about the huge implications of what he was discussing for the diversity and inclusion community. While diversity and inclusion have clearly evolved over the past few decades, the focus has largely remained within the “construct” we call the company and its various departments and employees.

Here are a few of the questions I believe that you, as an employee network leader, might want to consider in light of these changes to the way work is accomplished:

  1. Should we move from employee networks (employee resource groups or business resource groups), which consist solely of company employees, to worker resource groups, which include every person involved in the work of creating value for the company’s customers?
  2. How can we leverage virtual meeting platforms to create a larger community that includes not only workers on our campuses who are not employees but also those that may be in another company, state or country?
  3. What roles, apart from being members, will these new WRG participants play? What would a core leadership group, comprised of people from different organizations and possibly a contractor and temporary worker, look like? Could this team of various worker-types be co-chairs?
  4. Where should these new WRGs look for executive sponsors? Should they have more than one sponsor to tap into pools across organizations?
  5. How will these employee networks, that transcend the construct called the company and its employees, secure their budgets? Will there be a hybrid approach for funding, for example, one that combines traditional company support with other types of funding?

From these questions and others, we should come up with a completely new array of “next-employee-network-practices” that support the needs of organizations and their workforces.

As we look at the evolution of work and its significance for diversity and inclusion, we have a choice to make: We can observe this process, see how it plays out, and then react to it, or we can take hold of it and steer it in a direction more to our liking and competitive advantage.

As Abraham Lincoln once said, “The best way to predict your future is to create it.” I trust these questions will inspire you to begin creating the employee networks of the future.