Workforce ecosystems can help leaders better manage changes driven by technological, social, and economic forces.

Ask leaders today how they define their workforces, and you’ll immediately hear some version of “Well, that has become a very interesting question, and even more so recently.” Today’s workforces include not only employees, but also contractors, gig workers, professional service providers, application developers, crowdsourced contributors, and others.

Effectively managing a workforce comprising internal and external players in a way that is both aligned with an organization’s strategic goals and consistent with its values is now a critical business necessity. However, legacy management practices remain organized around an increasingly outdated employee-focused view of the workforce — that it consists of a group of hired employees performing work along linear career paths to create value for their organization.

Seventy-five percent of respondents to our 2020 global survey of 5,118 managers now view their workforces in terms of both employees and non-employees. Growth in the variety, number, and importance of different types of work arrangements has become a critical factor in how work gets done in (and for) the enterprise.

We see many companies experimenting with ways to manage all types of workers in an integrated fashion. Several novel management practices have emerged across the business landscape. Even so, few — if any — best practices exist for dealing strategically and operationally with this distributed, diverse workforce that crosses internal and external boundaries. Executives seeking an integrated approach to managing an unintegrated workforce are left wanting.

We contend that the best way to conceptualize and address these shifts and related practices is through the lens of workforce ecosystems. We define workforce ecosystem as a structure that consists of interdependent actors, from within the organization and beyond, working to pursue both individual and collective goals.

Managing a workforce ecosystem goes beyond efforts to MIT SLOAN MANAGEMENT REVIEW Copyright © Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2021. All rights reserved. • Reprint #62315 • sloanreview.mit.edu unify the dissimilar management practices currently organized around employees and non-employees. It’s a new approach to a new problem that demands a fresh solution. Our view draws upon two years of research that includes two global executive surveys and interviews with leaders and academic experts. This brief article introduces the concept of workforce ecosystems and discusses how they can help managers rethink the way they align their business and workforce strategies.

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