Nearly 250 years after Adam Smith published The Wealth of Nations, the division of labor is a larger question than ever before. This founding text of economic liberalism insists on the need to divide production activities according to the degree of specialization of the different actors. Productivity gains and economies of scale gave rise to “national champions” with production surpluses intended for trade with other countries. The division of labour stood as the theoretical basis of blooming international trade.

In the history of economic liberalism, labour has often been the world’s guiding force. A rural exodus followed the first wave of industrialization in the 18th century and the brain drain in the second half of the twentieth century was a reaction to the beginnings of globalization.

The digital revolution is no exception. The new exodus is seeing talent running away from corporations, turning instead towards new forms of entrepreneurship. The disruption brought on by the new generation of startups is often seen by big companies as a huge threat. However, these same companies oftentimes ignore another kind of entrepreneur in the new economy: freelancers.

French readers: this article is available in the french press here and here


Freelancers are the guarantors of a new division of labour. They have chosen to leave corporate employment to start working as independent workers. In-demand experts such as software engineers, web designers, data scientists, and creatives are both very necessary and hard to hire in full-time positions. “Digital champions” such as promising start-ups, established unicorns and GAFAs see this major trend in recruitment. And most of them have started to contract elite freelancers since it is the only way to reach the best talents — and the innovation they bring with them.

The new division of labour will come from outside the corporation. Too many big companies stubbornly think that their so-called “digital transformation” will come from within their teams — in fact, it is precisely the opposite. Innovation will not come from your internal technical capacities. Instead, you must adapt your teams according to the technical requirements of a project. You need to work with the best talents at specific moments to succeed in creating new value chains. Very often, those are (or will soon be) freelancers who rely on their enlightened vision, precious hard skills and agile methods to bring innovation to their clients.


Big companies have everything to gain in taking inspiration from startup accelerators. The value of an accelerator is not measured solely by the sum of its employees’ added-value but by its total portfolio. HR within a big company should work this way as well. Their prime mission should not be talent acquisition but the creation of a talent ecosystem in order to develop a portfolio of skills and mindsets available on demand. A collaborative approach, horizontal information, and network effects are the keys to success in the digital economy.


Big companies have nothing to lose by working with freelancers. In the context of a talent war, the best experts in their field greatly prefer freelancing. Thus it is often pointless to offer them a full-time position in your company: they are simply not interested. The good news is that top hard skills and breakthrough approaches are available on demand for a global talent market. The advent of remote work and agile tools have been removing the geographical barriers that stood in the way of collaborating with the best experts worldwide. This major paradigm shift enables companies to dispose of a huge talent pool while accommodating time-limited budgets and engendering minimal risks.

Technology will not dictate the future of big companies. Talent management will. An updated analysis of Smith’s work would very likely consider freelancers as precious competitive advantages helping the new “global champions” develop and survive in the digital economy. As a result, working with the best talents is a new division of labour — on top of being a weapon of choice against disruption.