During the middle ages there were three types of fighting men:  Knights, foot soldiers, and archers.  Carefully armored, a single knight could plow through multiple foot soldiers and archers.  A knight was either born to the position or had to prove himself with exceptional valor in combat.

Sometimes, because of tricks of inheritance, or economic challenges, a knight would lose (or leave) his patron to become a “Free Lance.”  In other words, he was available to fight battles for any lord who was willing to pay.  (For more about knights see:  http://library.thinkquest.org/10949/fief/medknight.html ).

Today when economic challenges arise there is often a rise in “Freelancers” – experts in a given area that are willing to work without demanding a long term “patronage.”  While some freelancers are pushed into independence, others choose independence because of the opportunity it gives them to accomplish more than they could at a single organization.

So are freelancers a boon or a bane to the companies that hire them?

Here are a few guiding questions when considering a freelancer over a full-time employee.  (If you are building an entire team there are different factors to consider, which I will address in a future post.)

Do you need, and can you afford, a full-time employee to address the current need?

If you are addressing work that will require a full-time effort over an extended period of time, you might want to add to your permanent team.  If, however, the task does not require a full-time effort, or you cannot justify a full-time equivalent, then a freelancer could provide valuable help without the overhead and commitment of a permanent employee.

Are you addressing an emergent need that can’t wait for a full-time employee?

Perhaps you anticipate needing a full time employee, but the problem at hand won’t wait.  Engaging a freelancer can often be accomplished faster than the search for a full-time employee.  Hiring a full time employee often takes more time because firing a full-time employee is more costly and difficult than terminating a freelance agreement.  Also if the problem requires specialized expertise, the difference can be even more pronounced, which leads to…

Do you need highly specialized talent?

Perhaps one of the greatest advantages of engaging a technology free lance is that the individual has unique skills or depth of experience.  Searching for a potential hire with very specialized technical skills can take a long time.  And once hired, it can be difficult to retain that employee unless there is a constant stream of relevant challenges to keep the specialist engaged (see the first question above).  A talented freelancer should solve complex, specialized problems in much less time than a generalist.

Do you need a “test drive?”

Hiring a technical expert can be a daunting task because the company often lacks the technical expertise necessary to evaluate the candidates.  After all, to get hired the candidate doesn’t have to be an expert at the subject, he just has to know more about the subject than anyone that interviews him.  Perhaps in these cases, a “Contract to Hire” engagement might be appropriate.  Many freelancers are involuntarily independent and are open to creative engagements. This is also a good time to look to a trusted technical adviser that can not only refer qualified candidates to address unique problems, but can also help screen out unqualified candidates.

Are you culturally prepared to bring an outside voice into the organization?

Some companies have a culture that resists the notion of a freelancer.  That culture will make it difficult to draw upon this pool of technical resources.  This is another opportunity to rely on an adviser that has worked through these issues before.

Building your internal team to address long-term, large-scale issues often makes sense.  However, hiring highly skilled individuals for specific or limited engagements can give your company access to a wealth of talent that is simply not available or affordable through full-time hiring.  It is worth considering how much your organization could accomplish with the unique talents of a few, well-chosen, “free lances.”

CXO Vantage Point Guest Blogger

Craig Adams, Chief Information Officer (CIO)

Craig Adams, CIO