Draw a Venn diagram. Label one of the circles “What I’m good at.” Label the next “What I enjoy doing.” The third reads, “What someone will pay me to do.

Where the three intersect? That’s your career, if you want one. It’s also the core  framework hiring managers have in the backs of their minds when trying to staff their organizations.

They’re accustomed to hiring employees. They bring in contractors – independent workers, also known as members of the gig economy – for situations that call for individuals with a well-defined “sack o’ skills” for a finite duration.

Contractors are, that is, members of the workforce who have decided they won’t scratch their circle #2 itches through their careers. Their numbers appear to be increasing, very likely as an offset to those who prefer the traditional employment/career approach to earning a living.

Managers generally think of their organization as a social construct. When staffing a role, hiring an employee is their default, and for good reason. They want someone who will do more than just a defined body of work. Beyond that they want people who will pitch in to help the society function smoothly, who will provide knowledge and continuity, who find this dynamic desirable, and whose attitudes and approaches are compatible with the business culture.

Bringing in a contractor is, for most open positions, Plan B.

Which is unfortunate for hiring managers right now. The trend appears to be that if they want enough people to get the organization’s work done they’re going to have to make more use of contractors … and not only contractors but also employees who have no interest in pursuing a career, just an honest day’s pay in exchange for their honest day’s work – who want jobs, not careers.

A different approach to staffing to what we’ve all become accustomed to is evolving, one that’s more transactional and less interpersonal. Culture will be less of a force because contractors will spend less time acculturating than employees; also, the ratio of time working independently than in the team situations where culture matters most is steadily increasing.

In some respects it will be more expensive. Contractor turnover will be higher than employee turnover because that’s built into how the relationship is defined. The ratio of onboarding time to productive time will increase.

Managers who don’t want to head down this road do have an alternative: They can compete for those members of the workforce who don’t want to become independent. The law of supply and demand suggests that this approach will cost more. It will also mean thinking through how to make the work environment as desirable as possible.

One more factor, as if one was needed: The security ramifications of a more transient workforce are significant.

Bob’s last word: “Digital” refers to changes in a company’s marketplace that call for changes in a company’s business strategy in response. Digital is all about products and customer relationships.

The current restructuring of traditional staffing practices is the result of digitization, the rise of the remote worker digital technologies have enabled, and COVID-19, which accelerated it all. It’s the next digital marketplace transformation to which businesses must adapt, only this time the marketplace in question is the one that trades in labor.

Adapting to this nascent transformation of the employment marketplace is less familiar territory, but it isn’t different in principle. Strategists have always had to think in terms of where their organizations fit into an overall business ecosystem. Staffing has always been part of this overall ecosystem. It’s just that few business leaders, not to mention those of us who engage in punditry and futurism … anticipated how quickly and dramatically this ecosystem would morph.

Bob’s sales pitch: Ten years ago, when I published Keep the Joint Running: A Manifesto for 21st Century IT, “Digital” was still an adjective, “everybody knew” the rest of the business was IT’s internal customer, and “best practice” was a phrase people tossed around when they had nothing better to say.

Oh, well. You can’t win ‘em all. But even though Digital has been noun-ified, this book’s 13 principles for leading an effective IT organization are as relevant as the day the book was published.

How lazy was I over the Thanksgiving weekend? So lazy that not only didn’t I write a new column but I didn’t even carefully choose the re-run. Instead, what follows ran ten years ago today. Hope you enjoy it … even though I didn’t choose it carefully I still liked what I read when I looked it over.

– Bob


The wood thrush sings beautifully. The ring-billed gull does not — it squawks. Don’t blame the gull.

Blame the gulls. There’s a difference.

Thrushes sing without interference. This gives males room to produce complex vocalizations. Female thrushes decide whose song they like best, which more or less determines who mates with whom … the whole point of birdsong.

Gulls, in contrast, live in crowded colonies. With so many males vying for mates in such close quarters, it’s all a male can do to even get noticed. Amplitude is the name of the game. Subtlety has no place in it.

Any parallels between different work environments are purely the reason I brought the whole thing up. This isn’t, after all, an ornithological or sociobiological blog, and I’m certainly not going to compare either gulls or thrushes to our political campaigns.

I don’t, after all, gratuitously insult birds.

So let’s stick to the workplace you’re responsible for. Among the reasons: you can do something about it.

The question, of course, is whether the communications environment your employees work in is more thrush-like or gull-y.

It boils down to what someone has to do to get someone else’s attention, whether it’s a peer, someone in another part of the company, or, for that matter, you.

Some work situations have far too much in common with gull colonies. Crowded and frantic, everybody has too many demands on their attention and no time at all to absorb messages that require serious thought and analysis. This being the case, everyone flags every email they send as Urgent! while preceding their executive summaries with brief abstracts, and the abstracts with catchy subject lines.

Even worse, in situations like this, where every signal contributes to the overall cacophony, everyone involved has a legitimate reason to ignore everything … except, that is, for the small number of messages they receive from a trusted few (analogies do eventually break down).

Compare this to a more thrush-like situation. The background noise level is low. Messages have more depth. Recipients have more time to absorb. The occasional shrill voice gets urgent attention, which, if the urgency turns out to be artificial, leads to quiet coaching regarding the value of quietude.

Sound idyllic? It might be idyllic. Or, it might go beyond idyllic, reaching the realm of utter fantasy.

In the world of the professional management consultant, organizations thrive when everyone focuses their time, attention and energy on the few things that matter most, ignoring the trivia that constantly tries to distract them.

It’s entirely possible this view of the world can actually work. It is, however, just as possible that it works for the people who adopt it only because there are others hidden in the background who handle all of the so-called trivia … a flock of tasks that really do have to get done, but which have no glory attached to them.

The two possibilities aren’t mutually exclusive either. It’s likely most work environments have to be complicated but don’t have to be as complicated as they are.

Here’s what I know for sure: Almost without exception, everything … everything … is more complicated than it looks at the surface. And if it isn’t, it will be soon, because a competitor will add to the complexity by enhancing their next-generation product or service.

Often, government regulations also add to the complexity load. Not that they’re unnecessary — that depends on the regulation. But they do generally add to the complexity, although there are exceptions.

Someone has to handle it all. And in many situations, adding enough staff to let everyone concentrate on just a few important priorities would be completely unaffordable. The conclusion: Some employees are valuable precisely because they don’t focus on a few important matters … they multitask, juggle, keep track, and muddle through somehow.

When they need help, or discover something that calls for higher-level attention, they’re going to sound inelegant, more gull than thrush, because they’re competing for attention with quite a few others who also have to multitask, juggle, keep track, and muddle through somehow.

Take two lessons from this. First, from a purely personal perspective you’re better off being a thrush than a gull. The stress is lower and everyone will admire you more.

And second, do everything you can to keep the complexity to a minimum.

You might not be able to eliminate it altogether. But only a birdbrain would make it any worse than it absolutely has to be.