Sunday, July 18, 2010

Musings on free agents

Anyone who happens to be a sports critique –and most Americans claim to be one – wouldn’t have missed the recent drama over the free agent, LeBron James signing up with Miami heats after being courted by several NBA franchises in a high profile televised drama. Though I wouldn't claim to be an armchair sports enthusiast, even I couldn’t stay away from the news that was in the headline for almost a week.

This idea of a free-agent being courted for his rock-star abilities brought back thoughts of earlier research on the topic when I first read Daniel Pink’s book Free Agent Nation. This was over six years ago and I also wrote a couple of articles on the topic then (links below). A lot has happened, even in the world of technology management that is redefining the role of free-agents.
  • Continuing economic downturn. Major economies around the globe are still struggling to get over the slump. Unemployment continues to be high in many western economies, and anti-globalization sentiment continues be fueled by the media. In some economies, protectionism also means tightening of immigration controls and restrictions on free movement of goods and services across national boundaries. If there is a silver, lining it is in the tech sector. Tech companies are looking beyond the slump and are beginning to invest for the future. Even other non-tech companies are beginning to increase their tech spending, albeit selectively, in preparing for the economic recovery. Sourcing and offshoring continues to grow, reflecting in steady growth and earnings being posted by tech services companies. (WSJ: Strong 1Q Earnings Hopes Buoy IT Stocks).
  • Globalization and maturing of offshoring: Maturing of offshoring IT services has meant that organizations are no longer trudging through unchartered waters when it comes to defining processes to manage globally distributed teams, and managing projects across time zones and cultures. Sure, operational challenges remain, but the best practices are also maturing. What this means is that there is lesser need for "strategic thinkers" to define newer business processes but a greater need for managers who can orchestrate and execute to the speck.

The trends are leading many to think that the role of free agent is not ‘truly free’ to market. A knowledge of organizational dynamics, constraints and culture is as important as the managerial ability one brings to the table. Offshoring vendors are looking to groom managers who understand their internal processes and culture, while poaching specialist ‘talent’ that can execute, leading to a high turnover among service companies, especially in mature offshoring markets like India.

Given the two trends – continuing economic downturn and maturing offshoring IT services – I have been reflecting on the role of free agents in this sector. Personally, I continue to enjoy my role as an Enterprise Architecture Consultant, enjoying the variety of moving from gig-to-gig, advising clients on complex problems and helping them see ‘outside the box.’ In a sense, Ienjoy being a free-agent while continuing to draw a paycheck from my employer. A hybrid free-agent if you will.

Reflecting on LeBron James’ drama, one wonders if we are likely to see true-free agents in the tech sector anytime soon?