Most of us have used, or at least heard of, Uber and Airbnb these days. And these are simply two of a growing cadre of thousands of “sharing economy” companies (aka “the collaborative economy”) that are taking hold, among them Feastly, Yerdle, and Instacart. Meanwhile, the space continues to grow each day as new companies pop up even as marquee mainstays such as Uber branch out into complementary offerings (for Uber, this means taking on delivery services next).
There are different forms of collaborative consumption and multiple marketplace structures within the sharing economy. Because it is disruptive in nature, it is important for business leaders and managers to take the sharing economy into account in their strategy and planning.
Many companies with more conventional business models, from Google down, are finding there are collaborative opportunities within their markets. Moreover, the sharing economy is not “business as usual” for learning and talent development groups. Here are some thoughts on the shifts involved.
The sharing economy
When we take a closer look at the companies in the sharing economy, regardless of size or level of success, we find two common threads. The first is that an overwhelming majority of them operate with a tiny core full-time staff supplemented by hundreds—if not thousands—of freelancers who in reality are the face of the brand to consumers day in and day out.
The second is that these are companies that are truly shaking things up, innovating new solutions leveraging leading-edge technology that today have become heavily integrated into consumers’ lives. Continuing our example of Uber, it shows a reported average of 1.1 million rides per week—a substantial number considering the service didn’t exist just five years ago. This is great news for the typical consumer seeking a better way of going about life. Indeed, nearly one-quarter (23 percent) of the US population has engaged with sharing-economy platforms within the last 12 months.
The challenge for learning and talent development
But for those of us in training and development roles, this begs one big question: as these companies build and grow, how can they effectively onboard a disparate force of independent workers, spread out across the planet, all while shaping them into the best ambassadors for their brand that they can possibly be? The very fact that these “ambassadors” are not company employees is key to the lean infrastructure that lends to the category’s success; yet, it may also be their biggest challenge in presenting a unified brand experience, voice, and tone. In fact it is because of this that onboarding is arguably an equally important underpinning of a sharing-economy company’s success. If the people you’ve selected on the front lines can’t talk the brand talk or walk the brand walk, that leaves consumers at best confused, but more likely disenchanted and never coming back.
While this arrangement provides benefits to both workers and the companies themselves, when it comes to delivering guidelines and best practices to its workers, companies in the sharing economy need to take greater responsibility in ensuring their innovation is not falling apart on the ground in Sioux Falls or Los Angeles or Tallahassee in the hands of its independent contractors. And with the small internal staff we often find, this can be a tall onboarding order.
Paradoxically, what we often find when we peek behind the curtain at some of the most innovative sharing-economy companies is an archaic, and sometimes technologically backward, screening and onboarding process. How can it be that the very companies that have mastered the complexity of delivering to you and me, with a few taps, a rental home, a warm meal, a cart of groceries, a housekeeper, or a personal driver are still delivering onboarding and training to their workforces via live presentations in cold meeting rooms or at set times on a web conference repeated over and over again? Not only does this contradict the innovative spirit on which these companies were built, but also the very on-demand spirit that attracts both workers and customers to them. And worse yet, it can substantially impede their ability to scale and do so quickly and affordably.
Match customer-facing innovation with infrastructure processes
This is perhaps why Arun Sundararajan, a professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business, contends, “The next wave of opportunities in businesses will be companies that look at how we support development of the sharing economy.” The good news is that solutions—from training to CRM—are already in place to help bolster the sharing economy into the next wave of growth and success.
The sharing economy is expected to be a $335-billion (USD) industry by 2020. How can companies set themselves up to take a larger piece of this revenue pie? Surely continued innovation in its technology will be vital. But I believe greater success will be enjoyed by those companies that focus on optimizing their business processes, of which onboarding is key. While the sharing economy is in its adolescent phase, it has already offered the wider business universe key lessons in innovation. In order to mature, however, sharing-economy companies will need to match the innovation they deliver on the front lines of the customer experience with the processes they implement behind the scenes.