Liquid Workforce

Building the workforce for today’s digital demands


In January 2013, GE Appliances put together a small cross-functional team, gave them a limited budget, and challenged them to create a refrigerator for its high-end Monogram range. Less than a year later, the team delivered their product, built twice as fast and at half the cost—and it is selling twice as well as previous models.

The US-based electronics giant attributes the team’s success to FastWorks, an approach that involves doing away with rigid processes and allowing employees to make rapid changes to their projects, even switching directions when necessary. GE supports its employees by providing access to smart data and continuous training that enables them to keep up with the evolving demands of the project.

GE is not alone in embedding lean start-up practices into its workforce, allowing it to change faster and make smarter decisions. To keep up with the breakneck pace of technological advances, leaders around the globe are building workforces that can flex just as rapidly—in other words, a Liquid Workforce.

Employees in this nimble workforce are organised in working groups, moving easily from project to project, training on the go by tapping resources both within and outside the company. Some 80 percent of employers in this year’s survey believe that such a workforce will be a key competitive advantage for companies in the digital age, where disruption is a way of life.

Building a Liquid Workforce

To build this Liquid Workforce, companies must use digital technology to enable agility at three levels: skills, projects and the organisation as a whole.

Skills Development: To access the continuous stream of new technologies, continual training must become a core competency. Fortunately, there are a growing number of scalable training solutions to choose from including massive online open courses (MOOCs), boot camps, and even virtual reality training. Forward-thinking organisations are also developing in-house programmes and units to fill skills gaps. According to one study, companies that invest US$1,500 annually in training per employee will see average profit margins that are 24 percent higher than those that don’t.

Project Planning: At the project level, digital businesses need to leverage collaboration tools and cloud-based workflows to connect their workforce and empower anytime, anywhere working. They also need to be able to assemble the right people from inside and outside the organisation into optimal teams.

TechVision 2016 found that "deep expertise for the specialised task at hand" was only the fifth most important thing that digital employers looked for, with "ability to quickly learn," "ability to multitask" and "willingness to embrace change" ranking higher. As such, companies will need to source deep skills as needed, including contractors, freelancers, alliance partners and start-ups, and assemble them into optimal teams for different projects.

Organisational Structure: A skilled workforce and flexible project model will only flourish in an equally flexible organisation. This means more horizontal leadership structures, like at GE, where front-line employees, exposed to continual training and with data at their finger-tips, are empowered to make decisions.

As we move forward, a growing proportion of employees will be made up of Millennials, talent that has grown up as digital natives, and who adapt easily to the furious pace of technological change. This generation seeks more flexibility, less hierarchy, are keen to shape their own career paths, and are comfortable using digital tools to work anytime, from anywhere. In other words, a perfect fit for your Liquid Workforce.

Asia is in excellent stead to benefit from this trend—by 2020, the region will have 60 percent of the world’s millennial population.

The Liquid Workforce in Malaysia

When it comes to creating a Liquid Workforce in Malaysia, there has been uneven progress. At the skills level, large companies have their own internal learning centres, and tertiary institutions are updating their curriculums to reflect the new capabilities and competencies needed, especially in the areas of data science and analytics. Several companies in Malaysia are experimenting with “reverse mentoring,” or roping in younger employees to mentor senior leadership, including CEOs, on digital trends. The government has also been supportive with its Human Resources Development Fund that covers employee training costs, and other initiatives such as MaGIC, which runs free data science courses. However, on the projects level, the external or freelance market is not yet fully tapped due to concerns about data privacy and preserving competitive advantages. On the other hand, the uncertain economy means that many Millennials are seeking the security of full-time rather than freelance jobs. Organisational structures also remain largely hierarchical, although MNCs are leading the way in flattening their structures. We anticipate the move towards a more liquid workforce will gain momentum in the next 12 to 18 months as the economy improves, and also as the demand for talent outstrips supply. It will, we hope, be accompanied with the requisite cultural shift that will make innovation a part of organisational DNA, allowing great ideas to come to life. Technology alone will not propel organisations towards their new strategic objectives. People—empowered by technology to evolve, adapt and drive change—will.

Case Studies

A growing number of job seekers in Malaysia are seeking more flexibility in their work life. Between 2009, when Malaysians started using, and 2014, over 27,000 freelance jobs have been posted on the website, and over US$851,000 earned by its freelancers. Job seekers bid for jobs posted by employers, who then decide which candidate best meets their needs. A system built into the process ensures that the freelancer is paid for the job, with a team on hand to review disputes and award funds at “payment milestones.” Malaysia is also one of the fastest growing markets for global online marketplace oDesk.


The last few years has seen the launch of a number of job hunting platforms targeted at Millennials, linking them with employers that share similar ideas in terms of working culture, office environment, team building, and other millennial priorities. Among them is WOBB, or Working On Bean Bags, launched in 2014. Job hunters logging onto can find pictures of prospective workplaces, and get a closer look at the people they will be working with and an idea of the working culture before sending in their applications. Every three months, the WOBB team picks between 15 and 20 job seekers across Malaysia, based on their CVs and video cover letters, for an "Awesome Tour." To date, candidates have been taken to visit the offices and meet staff of Google, Maxis, Quintiq, Paypal, KFIT, Mind Valley and Nuffnang. A mobile app allows users to apply for jobs anywhere, anytime.


TribeHired is a social recruitment platform that curates a list of the top IT talents available for hire in the city each week, and presents them to the companies on its database. These companies view videos of the talents curated, and then compete to hire them by placing their bids and setting up three potential “dates.” At the end of the week, the talents decide on which three interview offers to accept. A new element at TribeHired is a “bootcamp,” essentially a stand-off between participants who present themselves and compete to be recognised among the top 10 talents of the week.

Key Takeaways

  • Address workforce disruptions today

  • Agile workforce = Agile business

  • Start your transformation in five key ways

  •  Make training a core competency

  •  Become more project oriented and agile

  •  Empower collaboration and new ideas

  •  Manage a distributed workforce

  •  Create an organisation that is built to facilitate, not impede