Agents, Intermediaries and Collaborators

agentMuch has been written about the role of agents, intermediaries and collaborators in our economy. They represent three different ways to partner with people to get things done:

  • Agents do things for you, in return for money. Examples: investment brokers, real estate brokers, insurance brokers, travel agents, talent agents, lawyers, advertising agents, politicians, general contractors, the mainstream media (once called ‘news agents’).
  • Intermediaries are go-betweens, who pass stuff along to you that it is hard for you to get yourself, and sometimes add some value along the way. Examples: researchers, analysts, retailers, bankers, offshorers, and the music, film and TV production oligopolies (which don’t actually produce anything, just brand and market).
  • Collaborators do things with you, for mutual benefit. Examples: work teams, peer production, facilitators, coaches, Natural Enterprises, cooperatives, Natural (Intentional) Communities.

The dreaded consultants of the world can, of course, do any of these three things; their middle name is “I-can-do-that.”

There seems to be a growing consensus that:

  • Agents are largely a waste of money. As long as they go on doing things for you, you never learn how to do them yourself. And since the money they earn is usually a percentage of the total cost of what they broker, they are, as James Surowiecki points out, in an inherent conflict of interest. They are motivated to broker more, and more expensive transactions for you, whether or not that is in your best interest. So what is emerging are services that eliminate the need for agents entirely, and allow you to deal directly with the supplier (or, in the case of lawyers, with your adversary, through alternative conflict resolution). Suppliers tend to balk at this, because it means they have to deal with a much larger number of customers directly, but with ‘self-serve’ software it is manageable. 
  • Intermediaries need to add value if they are to serve any useful purpose. There has been a recent trend to disintermediation, getting rid of the middle-man, in those cases where the middle-man just holds the stuff for awhile and charges you for the cost of holding it (which is of no value to you), displaying it, and ‘serving’ you. But there has also been a counter-trend called reintermediation, in those cases where the middle-man (or woman) really does add something of value. Many librarians, for example, no longer maintain collections of materials and do searches for their employers; now they do research, produce reports and analyses, and represent their employers as subject matter specialists. But this is tough to do if you don’t really know what your (internal or external) customer does, and most intermediaries are, alas, specialists in intermediation, not in their employer’s or customer’s business.
  • Collaborators, if they’re good, are pure gold. But that’s a big ‘if’. Most of us are not very good, or practiced, at collaboration. With practice, and with good facilitators and coaches (also hard to find) we can get much better. And ultimately as we move to peer production, we will be working with our customers and suppliers so closely that we can no longer differentiate them. We will be able to operate collaborative enterprises with no middle-men whatsoever. These enterprises will be true partnerships, with no overpaid ‘executives’.

I have argued that the industrial growth-for-growth’s sake economy is unsustainable, and that what is needed is a post-industrial gift economy or generosity economy, a steady-state economy striving not for individual wealth but for collective well-being. Such a Natural Economy is inherently collaborative, rather than competitive.

Shoshana Zuboff has written about something called the Support Economy, which is in essence about large-scale reintermediation. It is very individual-focused (Zuboff is, after all, an American professor). It suggests that the market will inevitably reward new intermediaries who fill and bridge gaps in individuals’ needs. It’s not particularly collaborative, and requires a faith in the efficient workings of the market that I don’t have. But an intermediated economy is a step forward from an agency economy.

A recent medical journal article (brought to my attention by William Tozier) describes a new phenomenon called apomediation. This is essentially about helping you, supplementing and complementing you as you work in this increasingly disintermediated world. The article argues that publishers, librarians and doctors (at least those with informed patients) are now apomediaries. This is a state, I think, somewhere between (re-)intermediation and collaboration. When your librarian becomes your group’s info-facilitator, and your doctor becomes your health coach, as true partners rather than either subordinates or unchallenged gods, we’re making progress.

How about governments? Aren’t they, after all, mainly agents for the collective will? Is the universal antipathy for government, at every point along the political spectrum, a reaction against agency? Is there a non-agency model that works for health care, policing, education, roads and utilities?

I think you know my answer to this. It’s a community-based model where the members of a community take collective responsibility for their members’ health and well-being, learning and infrastructure. In areas and cases where community self-sufficiency is not practical, networks of communities can work together to share and pool resources. There is no need for agents. Wirearchy just works better than centralized bureaucracy, privatized oligopoly (just another form of agency, except with a shareholder profit margin added to the cost) or hierarchy.

What can we do to move this along?

The great paradox, and the reason so much of our economy is consumed by agents and intermediaries who add absolutely no value to the economy, is that we don’t have enough time to learn to do things that agents do, competently, ourselves. So we pay these agents, and we have to work even harder and longer to afford to do this, which constrains our learning and self-sufficiency even more.

To break that vicious cycle, the best thing we can do is simply refuse to use agents. That means not suing people, but using facilitated alternative disputes processes instead. It means thinking seriously about the wisdom of buying insurance and investments and houses and advertising and stuff that’s advertised and airplane trips at all, and if we feel we must, at least managing the purchase directly ourselves. It means learning to do our own research and analysis, like reading Consumer Reports instead of sale fliers before we buy things. It means not borrowing money (or if we have to, borrowing short-term, from a credit union) and investing money in local community enterprises, not banks and stock markets. It means learning to grow and make things for ourselves instead of buying them through retailers, or at least buying them direct from the local farmer, artist or craftsperson.

And it means learning and practicing collaboration skills, including facilitation and coaching skills.

Agents, and some intermediaries, are among the highest-paid and lowest-value members of our society. Let’s wean ourselves off our dependence on them, and force them to get real jobs, actually producing something. And redistribute what they were paid, in our communities, to those who need it and deserve it.

Category: Collaboration
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2 Responses to Agents, Intermediaries and Collaborators

  1. Jon Husband says:

    Harold Jarche elaborates on your points in his post on John Seeley Brown’s “Edge Thinking”:JSB discusses the concept of workscapes (reminds me of Jay

  2. vera says:

    Yes! Dump the parasites! I have long been convinced that schooling is specifically configured NOT to teach kids key skills so they would be forever dependent on the middlemen. Bah humbug. :-)

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