The Myth of Frictonless Free Agent Networks and Anywhere Anywhen Collaboration

I think of myself as a Digital Nomad. My closest friends and co-conspirators are spread over a dozen cities in five continents, but all of them seem equally close to me on my Facebook, LinkedIn or Twitter activity streams.

I travel a lot and literally live my life out of a tiny backpack. In 2010, I have already traveled to half a dozen cities for client meetings, conferences or workshops and spent more time in Mumbai and Bangalore than in Delhi itself, but I feel as if I am never really out of touch, as long as I have my phone, my laptop and my data connection.

I am also a big believer in the idea of social technologies bringing together communities distributed across time and space. During the 2009 Indian Lok Sabha election, Selvam and I ran Vote Report India from Seattle and Washington DC respectively, with a core team of volunteers spread across at least tean cities across three continents.

At 2020 Social, our tiny team of thirteen, in effect, works out of four cities: Delhi, Bangalore, Mumbai and Austin: Dave from Delhi and Austin, Kaushal and Abha from Bangalore, and Gautam and the rest of the team from Delhi, while I spend my days almost equally across Delhi, Bangalore and Mumbai. Not only that, we work with design, development and platform partners, sometime freelancers, who are spread across three continents.

As you would expect, we use the full range of collaboration tools at our disposal: video conferencing and Skype for talking to each other face-to-face; SocialText, Google Apps and Basecamp for collaborating in private; and Twitter and our blogs for sharing ideas and links in public.

So, the realization that the two ideas that at the core of our networked worldview — frictonless free agent networks and anywhere anywhen collaboration — are myths, or at least half-myths, hasn’t been an easy one. These ideas are half-myths because they work in principle, but not in practice, not in all contexts, especially not when you are trying to build an organization.

Free agents, by definition, have multiple loose relationships, and multiple priorities, which may or may not be aligned with the organization’s relationships and priorities.

If an organization needs something done next week — a deck, a logo, a wire frame design, a website — an employee is more likely than a free agent to put aside everything else he is committed to, and get it done. Organizations decide their employees’ work priorities, while free agents decide their own priorities.

Similarly, organizations and free agents use different rules for decision-making. Organizations weigh in the interests of all stakeholders including clients, partners and influencers, but make decisions to optimize its own interests first. Free agents, on the other hand, tend to make decisions to optimize the interests of their network of loose connections.

But, organizations can’t do everything in-house. Organizations need to build their core strengths in-house and work with partners and free agents to put together the full solutions. Sometimes, it may be easier to find free agents with the core skill sets than full-time employees, but I have decided that free agents are great multipliers for a strong organization, but you can’t build a strong organization of free agents.

Similarly, I have decided that anywhere collaboration works better than anywhen collaboration, given the right tools.

At 2020 Social, synchronous collaboration tools like video-conference calls, Skype video calls and GTalk chats seem to be the preferred means of collaborating, even though I prefer asynchronous tools like wikis and blogs myself.

So, collaborating with distributed teams working from different offices is easy is the offices are connected via video-conferencing (anywhere collaboration), but collaborating with a colleague who is working from home is almost impossible if she is juggling half a dozen tasks not related to work, and periodically logging to to check emails (anywhen collaboration).

I have considered the possibility that anywhere anywhen collaboration works better in a network of free agents and the problem lies in the idea of building an organization itself.

I am also aware of the flip-side, of course, when full-time employees sit together in an office from nine to five, but don’t really work much.

So, there aren’t any easy answers here. In the end, building an organizations means searching for people who are as passionate as you about what you do, and finding ways to ignite that passion on a daily basis.

If you are trying to build an organization yourself: what has been your experience with free agents and anywhere anywhen work? Do share your struggles and success stories in the comments.

As CEO of 2020 Social, I build and nurture online communities for Indian and international clients, connect their customers, partners and employees, and help them achieve their business objectives. Ask us how we can help you.

Related posts:

  1. Will Work for Praise: The Web’s Free-Labor Economy
  2. My Interview in India Today on Social Media as a Change Agent
  3. The Economics of Free and the 50/50 Enterprise

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