Developing and implementing an open talent strategy—one that engages contract freelancers in a structured way within your company—is an exciting step that puts organizations out front of innovation. But it can feel like shaky territory for some parts of businesses, notably IP, legal, and other key stakeholders whose job it is to uphold the business’s integrity while pursuing innovation and growth.
“Two years ago we set out on this journey and quickly realized that freelancing was going to be a unique opportunity to work in a new way in every corner of the organization,” says Liane Scult, the senior freelance program manager at Microsoft. “We also knew we needed to operate in a thoughtful and trusted way.”
Like other businesses, Microsoft knew alignment would be key to successfully implementing their gig strategy. “We started small, monitored the program and usage closely, prepared to involve the appropriate stakeholders, and then engaged them early and often.” Here’s how Microsoft and other companies have created strong internal alignment when building freelance programs.
Step One: Engage Key Stakeholders Early in the Process
When first launching, Scult was quick to bring in partners from legal, HR, and procurement. “Like most transformations, this was disruptive,” she says. So it was critical to have thoughtful discussions about keeping up with the speed of innovation and customer demand through their open talent strategy.
“We felt freelancers could help by enhancing our full-time workforce and suppliers,” says Scult. “Eventually our partners said, ‘Yes, this is Ok, but we have to work together to ensure we create a trusted and compliant offering for our employees and freelancers to work in this new way while gaining the benefits of freelance services.’”
Dyan Finkhousen, CEO, Shoshin Works, who for many years was the founder and director of GE’s global innovation accelerator Geniuslink, pulls in an operational owner as a stakeholder at the beginning of the program to ensure that, as decisions about the program are made, they have voice. “They are co-architecting the problem-statement design and coaching and evaluating the work,” says Finkhousen. “So at the end of the day, when you try to operationalize it, those people already have a voice and an investment. The person needs to have the right expertise to operationalize. If not, you can create a lot of broken links.”
Step Two: Tackle the IP Concern With a Sound Strategy for Protection
Intellectual property (IP) is a practical point of concern in launching any program that uses outside talent, When it comes to IP, Finkhousen suggest facing it head on. “Engage IP counsel early and thoughtfully to help open innovation projects proceed smoothly,” she says.
Alan Caswell, senior director, informatics research at Waters Corporation found the same to be true when he implemented an open talent program that focused on crowdsourcing. “Are there going to be IP issues, or are you going to expose too much of your internal corporate IP and give the competition a peek at what you are doing?” says Caswell, of some of the concerns he encountered. Caswell counsels that it is up to the company to outsource projects in a way that appropriately anonymizes the problem or task and makes the IP undetectable.
Step Three: Get Organized and Present Often
Finkhousen suggests you collect and focus all pertinent information into a succinct package. Run problem statements and the terms, conditions, and communication plans by IP counsel with respect to protocol, chain of command, and stakeholder opinions. “We share what we’re doing, the objective, what we need them to review, the decisions we need them to make and by which date we need their review and decisions,” she says.
This makes them part owners in the process. “Though some IP counsels can be difficult, most like to be innovators,” she explains. “Often they get called in when there’s a problem or to clean up a mess—a highly stressful situation that can be avoided if they’re engaged as partners in a smart way that doesn’t burn through a lot of their time.”
Step Four: Problem Solve with an Open Mindset
Finally, through it all it’s important to keep an open mind, says Scult. “Shift your mindset. Set aside the assumptions that you’re used to operating with regarding the best approach to solving a problem. Those assumptions are no longer relevant given current digital tools and new business models and markets.”
All three experts point to the success they’ve had having the right structure in place before they launch. “Overall the reception has been quite positive, with a bit of skepticism thrown in. People have been willing to engage and get on board,” says Caswell.