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Ep 420: The Project Economy


The world of work has changed in many ways, and one fascinating area is the adoption of a more agile approach to talent. Project-based contracting is on the rise employers work to ensure they have the right skills at the right time in rapidly changing business environments.

So what mindset do employers need to adopt to be successful in the project economy, and what are the implications on the career paths of knowledge workers.

My guest this week is Kate Duchene, CEO at RGP, a human capital company redefining how professionals work in more flexible and collaborative ways. Kate is at the cutting edge of the project economy and has some very valuable insights and experiences to share.

In the interview, we discuss:

• What is the Project Economy?

• The drive towards agility and mobility

• Renting or borrowing talent

• Run this place vs change this place

• Thinking differently about careers

• The importance of choice

• Skills development in portfolio careers

• From command and control to learning, listening and empathy

• Culture, productivity and performance

• The role of technology

• A future of increased flexibility

Listen to this podcast in Apple Podcasts.

Interview transcript:

SHL (0s):
Support for this podcast is provided by SHL. From talent acquisition to talent management, SHL Solutions provide your organization with the power and scale to build your business with a skilled, motivated, and energized workforce you need. SHL takes the guesswork out of growing a talented team by helping you match the right people to the right moments with simplicity and speed. They equip recruiters and leaders with people insights at an organization, team, and individual level accelerating growth, decision making, talent mobility, and inspiring an inclusive culture.

SHL (47s):
To build a future where businesses thrive because their people thrive visit to learn more.

Matt Alder (54s):
Before we start the show, a quick announcement to say that my latest book, Digital Talent, is now available to order or pre-order wherever you get your books. In a disrupted and technology-enabled world of work, a company’s ability to attract, recruit, and retain people with digital skills can be the difference between business success and business failure. I’ve co-authored again with Mervyn Dinnen and in the book, we explore how employers can find, recruit, retain, and develop the people they need in a time of intense digital transformation. The books out now in the UK, and will be published in the US and around the world on March the 29th.

Matt Alder (1m 55s):
Hi there. This is Matt Alder. Welcome to Episode 420 of the Recruiting Future Podcast. The world of work is changing in many ways. And one fascinating area is the adoption of a more agile approach to talent. Project-based contracting is on the rise employers work to ensure they have the right skills at the right time in rapidly changing business environments. So, what mindset do employers need to adapt to be successful in the project economy and what are the implications on the career paths of knowledge workers? My guest this week is Kate Duchene CEO at RGP, a human capital company, redefining how professionals work in a more flexible and collaborative way.

Matt Alder (2m 46s):
Kate is at the cutting edge of the project economy and has some very valuable insights and experiences to share. Hi, Kate, and welcome to the podcast.

Kate Duchene (2m 57s):
Hi, Matt. How are you?

Matt Alder (2m 59s):
I’m very well, thank you. And it’s an absolute pleasure to have you on the show. Could you just introduce yourself and tell us what you do?

Kate Duchene (3m 6s):
Sure. I’m Kate Duchene and I’m the CEO of a company called RGP. We are a project-based consulting company that helps our clients bring their strategy through to execution. We employ experienced hire consultants across a variety of skill sets, but we’re really here to power what we call The Project Economy, helping some of the world’s most beloved brands execute their change transformation and compliance initiatives.

Matt Alder (3m 43s):
So, first question, tell us more about The Project Economy. What is that? What does it look like? How has it developing?

Kate Duchene (3m 51s):
So I’ll start with what’s happening coming out of the global pandemic. And we saw these trends bubbling before the pandemic, but they seem to have accelerated coming out of the pandemic. And that is that companies have growing agendas of change initiatives. I mean, the disruption that the pandemic brought, I think has caused companies to understand that innovation and resiliency are critical attributes in today’s business environment. And so how do you move your business forward as quickly as possible that then ties to getting work done, not in a more traditional employed role-based way, but working more in a project orientation and understanding that for innovation projects or transformation projects, the skills that you need are constantly changing depending upon the focus of the particular project at issue.

Kate Duchene (5m 1s):
So it’s really a shift when you talk about the power of The Project Economy, it shifting workflows that are more agile and skillset attraction that is very focused on the needs of the particular project. Now, what we see in our client base, Matt, is there really two ways to drive to more agility. One is to help existing employees, you know, captive employees to the enterprise become more agile either by allowing them to sign up for projects and engage in more mobility, giving them better automation and digital tools to collaborate.

Kate Duchene (5m 44s):
But then a piece of that is also understanding that you don’t need to own all of the talent you need, but you can rent or borrow. And so we see two pathways where we’re really helping our clients build the agility and the resiliency they need for the future.

Matt Alder (6m 4s):
You mentioned there that the pandemic has radically accelerated The Project Economy. Can you describe what that looks like and how this is different from using contractors or freelancers and things that companies might have been doing for quite a long period of time?

Kate Duchene (6m 25s):
Yeah. It’s not different in really the approach. I think it’s different in volume today and what happened to many companies through the pandemic, especially as they had to downsize, there were many negative consequences. I think once you do downsize, that’s painful for any organization, but it’s also an inflection point where leaders can understand what do we really need to keep captive for the future that I put more in the “Run This Place” category, what are the skillsets that are repetitive, non-discretionary and very operational in nature where we need to run this place?

Kate Duchene (7m 6s):
And then there’s a category of work that we put in the “Change This Place” bucket and the “Change This Place” bucket is really where project orientation lives. And again, it can be drawing upon captive talent within the enterprise or looking outside for talent or additional talent to help lead some of the change-oriented initiatives that each company faces. So it’s not so much different than using external resources in the past, it’s just the volume I think, and the focus and the organizational or workforce strategy that’s coming with those decisions that’s different today.

Kate Duchene (7m 55s):
And that’s what leads us to believe that we’re in a changed world and we’re not going back.

Matt Alder (8m 1s):
Absolutely. That makes perfect sense. I want to dig in and talk a bit more about the employers and their mindset a bit later on, but before we do, let’s talk about the talent that you work with, the people who are doing these projects. Who are they? What kind of roles are we talking about, and what’s their attitude to their career? And how has that changed from the way that we sort of traditionally thought about careers?

Kate Duchene (8m 26s):
Right. So it’s changed dramatically in the last two years. And we’ve all been reading about those changes. Our core consultant base are knowledge workers, modern professionals. The bulk of our business is still related to needs derived by the CFO of the organization. So often our consultants, our finance and accounting professionals, supply chain professionals, risk and compliance professionals, data and digital professionals. So really kind of the core needs of an organization..

Kate Duchene (9m 8s):
In the past, we’ve competed primarily against the big four for that kind of talent base. And what we’re seeing today is that talent is really choosing to work in new ways, as opposed to signing up for a partnership structure, talent of today wants to control their career choices. And we talk about our career opportunity at RGP is the ability to have a portfolio career. And that portfolio career is built upon choice, transparency, and flexibility.

Kate Duchene (9m 48s):
And those considerations are the increasing important to today’s professional worker. And we can offer them a career path that leads to development, diversity, but all built on choice. And you’ll hear me say that a lot in today’s conversation because choice is what matters and what we’re seeing talent decide is that they don’t want the traditional hierarchy and pyramid structure anymore. It’s either too long or too regimented and talent understands they have different options today and they want to explore those.

Matt Alder (10m 53s):
As an organization that really coordinates this way of working for people. Do you have a role in people whose development and career plans, or is it very much just giving them the choice and the opportunity, you know, to step up and do new things and create new opportunities for themselves?

Kate Duchene (11m 14s):
So, Matt, thank you for that question. What differentiates RGP and us as an employer of choice is that we aren’t just a platform or a transactional provider. We really are a home for the professional workers. So we care about facilitating skills development, professional development, community support, and employer-employee relationship. So we’re very different than the freelancer platforms because we really want this type of talent to stay with us and to understand that there’s an alternative more modern career path for professional workers in today’s environment.

Kate Duchene (11m 57s):
So we spend a lot of time, you know, we have two main functions in our business. One is client service. So that’s our group of professionals who generally have similar skillsets to our consultants who are talking to clients every day about their transformation agendas and what kind of skill sets or project support do they need. And then the other engine is our both talent acquisition and talent management. So your question really gets to what’s the function of our talent management team. And that I think of more as concierge professional coaches, working with our consultants to say, what are you interested in? What skill sets do you have today?

Kate Duchene (12m 38s):
What do you want to continue to develop? What kind of industry experience do you want? What’s your appetite for projects that may be global in nature versus local in nature, and really creating and crafting together the career experience that talent wants.

Matt Alder (12m 58s):
Switching back to employers and the employers that you work with, what kind of mindset the employees need to get to, to sort of fully, really fully get the benefits of this way of working with talent within this kind of in this project-based way because I guess that for many employers, it’s quite a difficult shift to make particularly industries where they’ve kind of, as you used the great word that the talent is captive to them and has been in the past? What kind of mindset shift do employers have to go through to make this work?

Kate Duchene (13m 37s):
That’s an excellent question. I think it’s really, you know, gone are the days of command and control. I think we’ve seen that play out in some of the recent stories about CEOs demanding that all talent comes back in the office and all talent is not responding in the way that I think those leaders want. And what that tells me is the mindset of command and control is gone in today’s workplace. And the mindset that I think employers that really thrive will adopt is one of learning and continuous learning because we’re all continuing to learn as we recover and face new challenges in the macro-environment.

Kate Duchene (14m 20s):
I think empathy is a really critical attribute of an enterprise today. And that comes with listening and adopting more flexible approaches to how work gets done. Technology has enabled us to do things we didn’t think we could five years ago or 10 years ago. And so really adopting that continuous learning, listening, empathetic and innovative mindset, I think are crucial for the future of successful organizations.

Matt Alder (14m 58s):
And in terms of things like culture and productivity and performance, what have you seen that that really works because I know that in the past many employers have treated project workers or interim workers or contractors very differently to the way that they treat their full-time staff? Is that changing? And what’s the best way for employers to think about that?

Kate Duchene (15m 24s):
You raise a very good point because contracted work or outsourced work in the past often had the reputation of being less important, less critical to the mission of the organization. And today, project work has shifted to become some of the most critical work of the organization because project work can also bring independent points of view, which organizations often need and sometimes don’t even realize how important that independent view can be. And also the introduction of new skillsets and training and learning that can happen with combined groups of team members that bring different perspectives.

Kate Duchene (16m 11s):
But I think culture is very important. You know, what we do with our clients, for example, is we spend a lot of time scoping, not only the substantive needs and skillsets of the project but also what are the soft skills needed? What’s the environment like? And making sure that as we offer the right profile for the project need or the right team profile that we’ve taken into account those softer environmental considerations. I think what’s really critical moving forward for companies who want to adopt more agility and resilience is to understand that the human resources, for example, department isn’t all about employer-employee relationship anymore.

Kate Duchene (16m 58s):
It should really be about talent to deliver business objectives and not all of that talent needs to be owned in today’s environment. It can be either developed or borrowed, and that’s where organizations can really achieve that agility objective.

Matt Alder (17m 16s):
You mentioned a little bit earlier about the technology. What’s the role of technology in The Project Economy?

Kate Duchene (17m 24s):
I think it’s an enabler. It will always be an enabler. I read a statement the other day that said technology and process make it possible. Humans make it happen. And that really resonates with me. It resonates with our business model. Technology plays a great role today, but it doesn’t deliver objectives on its own. And so, you know, a big believer in what they talk about the fifth industrial revolution, really being that period where we combine technology with human capital in order to achieve the greatest results.

Matt Alder (18m 4s):
Final question, how does this trend play out? What does the future of work look like? If we were having this conversation again in two years’ time, what would we be talking about?

Kate Duchene (18m 17s):
I think we will be talking about increased flexibility and that’s not only, you know, how work gets done and the kind of the new tools that are available to accomplish work. But it will also mean where work gets done and when it gets done. So I think we’ll continue to see innovation in this space, but it will be driven by transparency and flexibility, and understanding that talent is in the driver’s seat. And so many companies don’t, I think, want to recognize that yet, but the pendulum has shifted and I think it will stay shifted for forever in certain ways.

Kate Duchene (19m 5s):
Some will recalibrate a little bit, but I think we will continue to see innovation in workforce strategy in technology and automation tools. Every client we’re talking about wants more automation and workflows, and we’ll see more of that happening as well.

Matt Alder (19m 23s):
Kate, thank you very much talking to me.

Kate Duchene (19m 25s):
You’re welcome. Thank you, Matt.

Matt Alder (19m 28s):
My thanks to Kate. You can subscribe to this podcast in Apple Podcasts, on Spotify or via your podcasting app of choice. Please also follow the show on Instagram. You can find us by searching for Recruiting Feature. You can search all the past episodes at On that site, you can also subscribe to the mailing list to get the inside track about everything that’s coming up on the show. Thanks very much for listening. I’ll be back next time and I hope you’ll join me.

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