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Can 'pollinators' save companies from stagnation?

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Patrick Hanlon runs a branding agency called THINKTOPIA. We've traded thoughts in the past, and I think we may be soon trading some new ones regarding this post at Forbes. Patrick explains why "pollinators" — gypsy-esque workers who move from company to company, like bees, bringing tidbits of insight, innovation, and business culture with them — can drive corporate innovation.

Big companies, even ones with a background in innovation, are up against a classic problem. As they grow larger and more dominant (think: Google), they tend to tap out their ability to grow rapidly (think: Microsoft). They then fall into defensive actions to preserve what some investors call the "moat" around their competitive advantages. As the company focuses less on innovation and more on preservation, it can get "disrupted" by a more nimble rival or an upstart.

Enter the pollinators. Here's Patrick's take:

Within the bounds of nondisclosure agreements, these Pollinators are helping make organizations use external talent intelligently to be more innovative, more competitive, and less stuck in “this is how we do it here” silos.

He goes in to detail how various companies try to move their own people around to avoid the silo challenge — people getting stuck in one line of business or functional responsibility — or willingly bring in pollinators to shake things up. 

You can see how this trend parallels the rise of a "gig" economy, in which freelancing is the new full-time. I blogged about this last year, when I took a look at Sara Horowitz's work with Freelancers Union. There is a difference, however. The pollinators are the kind of professionals who've head-hunted themselves and discovered that they can command more value and enjoy a Richard Floridian "creative class" lifestyle by capitalizing on their exposure to key firms.

Gig economy folk may be unable to find full-time work, or may be stuck in a kind of corporate limbo, doing semi-full-time work, minus the job security and benefits. They may not lack chops or experience. But unlike pollinators, they don't have the killer resumes or tours of duty in the right places.

Both trends are examples of the how the workforce is transforming. The knock on the pollinators, if there is one, is that they're maybe in it for themselves. You could, in a churlish mood, call them mercenaries. Although given how rough the downturn has been on the employment-social contract in the U.S., a little more mercenary behavior might be warranted. A bee, after all, makes honey, but it also knows how to sting.

Regardless, Patrick has done well to summarize the motives and skills of the pollinators. As well as their potential value to companies that are heading toward an innovation crisis.

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