These are my notes on Gideon Kunda’s SSIT5 keynote about his new book (coauthored with Steve Barley): ‘Gurus, Hired Guns and Warm Bodies: Itinerant Experts in a Knowledge Economy‘, which examines the social organization of temporary work among engineers in Silicon Valley.
– He describes how his own interest evolved from his previous book, which was a critical ethnography of ‘organisational culture’ in a Route 128 startup. R128 was predominated by a work culture centred around large corporations, whereas the culture of Silicon Valley emphasised temporary work.
– He goes on to tell how he grew increasingly uncomfortable with the glorification of the former in the early 1990s and the latter in the late 1990s. For this book, he and Steve Barley negotiated access to a staffing company dealing engineers on temporary assignments to firms in the Valley. He overviews the history of U.S. labour relations starting from the New Deal. The late 1980s were a critical time for the emergence of temporary working relations in the Valley.
– The nuances of knowledge acquisition and the way how budgets are managed are the critical enablers of Valley-style temporary work. Also, temporary labour is a way to push up the valuation of the company when firms are valuated based on the relation between revenues and the number of permanent employees. Staffing firms are ‘single points of contact, proxies.
– ‘Gurus’ are the most highly valued temps whereas ‘warm bodies’ just fill a slot in the process. Staffing firms typically take a 40% slice of the total fee; that was the economic value of contracting at the time.
– From the contractors’ point of view, face-to-face encounters are essential. The other important thing was to get one’s name and CV out. Staffing firms on the other hand set out two kinds of salespeople: ones who look for the warm bodies, and others who look for open positions. The staffer never tells the contractor how much the company is paying for the position.
– In addition to searching for contractors, there is the step of qualifying them. Contractors constantly sell themselves on skills they can’t do, believing they will learn on the job. When you start on a job, there are always people watching you. Management wants to treat you as a commodity. No hand-holding, no cuddling here. You don’t get employee benefits, can’t go on the company picknick. And permanent employees may get suspicious that you’re taking away their work. Management can call the staffing firm and get you replaced or tell you to shower in the morning. And as you’re working, you need to keep talking to staffing firms to secure the next job.
– Even so this is some engineers’ dream. In practice people are interdependent, and a successful project requires people’s involvement beyond the state of commodities. Project managers are faced with the task of re-personalising the commodity. The more you know about the way work in the company is done, the more difficult (and hence costly) it is to replace you in practice. It’s a mixed message: ‘we don’t need you—we need you’; ‘we disregard you—we love you.’
– Contractors are simultaneously insiders and outsiders. This creates all kinds of identity issues, how do people define themselves. The typical way to deal with this is first by defining yourself as an expert; second, by professionalizing your status as an outsider.
– The typical narrative is that organisation is collapsing back into a market. But here another dynamic is in play, where a distinct professional class is emerging. The bubble’s burst reduced both the permanent and temporary employment by 20%; in many firms, paid employees were the first to go. This suggests that temporary contracting is here to stay. For the contractors, the challenge is how to establish a form of security without heavily institutionalising it.
Comment: To me personally, making sense of the contracting phenomenon is a way to make sense of my professional identity. Aula is one experiment in creating lighter structure for contractors. I also got to look at this from the perspective of a staffer when I worked on ShiftControl. I guess now I’m thinking about this as a potential contractor as I’m trying to figure out what I will do after the PhD.