The Future of Work Is Through Workforce Ecosystems

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

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Future of the Workforce

The Future of the Workforce initiative explores divergent strategies, as some organizations seek to make their human resources more transactional while others look hard at how to make better bets on longer-term human capital cultivation and returns.


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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 However, legacy management practices remain organized around an increasingly outdated employee-focused view of the workforce — that it consists of a group of hired employees performing work along linear career paths to create value for their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.

More than 75% 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 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.

Four Reasons to Focus on Workforce Ecosystems

Below, we highlight a series of shifts — driven by technological, social, and economic forces — that current management practices do not sufficiently address.

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Future of the Workforce

The Future of the Workforce initiative explores divergent strategies, as some organizations seek to make their human resources more transactional while others look hard at how to make better bets on longer-term human capital cultivation and returns.


More in this series


1. J.B. Fuller, M. Raman, J. Palano, et al., “Building the On-Demand Workforce,” PDF file (Boston: Harvard Business School and BCG, 2020),

2. E. Volini, J. Schwartz, I. Roy, et al., “Leading the Social Enterprise: Reinvent With a Human Focus,” Deloitte Insights, accessed Dec. 21, 2020,

3. N. Climer, “Automation Can Help Humans Enjoy Happy, Productive Working Lives,” Financial Times, Aug. 26, 2019,; and S. Estrada, “‘Skills Are the Currency of the Future’: The Rise of a Skills-Based Economy,” HR Dive, Nov. 5, 2020,

4. M. Schrage, J. Schwartz, D. Kiron, et al., “Opportunity Marketplaces: Aligning Workforce Investment and Value Creation in the Digital Enterprise,” MIT Sloan Management Review, April 28, 2020,

5. S.E. Page “The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools, and Societies," rev. ed. (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2008); and S.J. Creary, “Resourcefulness in Action: The Case for Global Diversity Management,” ch. 2 in “Positive Organizing in a Global Society,” eds. L.M. Roberts, L.P. Wooten, and M.N. Davidson (New York: Routledge, 2015).

6.Volini, et al., “Leading the Social Enterprise."

7. “Contingent Workforce Landscape: Trends and Strategies,” PeopleScout, accessed Dec. 15, 2020,

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Comments (3)
Allison Ryder
Paul and Tim, thank you both for these thoughtful comments, which have been shared with the authors. We will be addressing additional considerations in our forthcoming research report, publishing in April. We'll be announcing the piece to our e-news subscribers, so that's the best way to stay informed about it. We hope you'll find it useful.
Paul ONeill
Very interesting article, Such changes have been coming for a while but perhaps brought into greater focus as a result of the unprecedented changes wrought by Covid. There are also echos here of the work by Ravin Jesuthasan (e.g. Re-inventing Jobs).

I'd suggest that there is a further component behind the identified "Workforce Ecosystem" issue, i.e. a lack of an underpinning "System of Work" in many sectors. E.g. we have "Systems of Interaction", "Systems of Record", but are missing the core aspect of "Systems of Work"

At NolijWork, our view is that whilst there are "Systems of Work" for "Work of the Hands", e.g. Toyota Production System / Lean, there is limited equivalence for "Work of the Head". That said, the Toyota 3M principles are a useful start point, from which many other things could flow. That then enables organizations to ascertain what type of Workforce Ecosystem they need to have to match their needs.
tim curry
Very interesting read but you don’t mention the impact of these changes on other issues like employment stability (how that affects their ability to mortgage, borrow, save, invest) and issues like flexible working that allows people to raise families without damaging career progress or income stability. The gig economy has ‘worked’ in some respects but recent COVID stresses have shown that gig workers are left vulnerable and the state has essentially picked up the tab for income security and community cohesion.