One of the most exciting trends in coming years will be the formation of cooperative working groups made up of independent contractors.

Whether they are called networks, guilds, cooperatives, collectives, flocks, or something else, these groups will bring back many of the benefits of working collaboratively with others, without the bureaucracy and overhead of traditional organizations.

As attractive and compelling as it is to be a full-stack freelancer, there are three significant downsides that can’t be addressed without collaboration:

  • It is very solitary, even lonely work
  • It is difficult to find mentors and peers to learn from and to learn from you
  • You have to not only do the work itself, you have to market and sell it

One of the most interesting models I’ve come across is the Free Agent Ecosystem (FAE), a framework that describes a “sustainable, commercial ecosystem among collaborating professional services free agents.” It was first published in 2001 in a working paper1 written by a group of innovation and business consultants led by Joseph B. Sterling of Rainforest Strategies, along with Dr. Karen Dietz, Sharon Lieder, and Rita L. Sterling.

The framework was developed in response to a series of emerging business trends that have created the conditions for new kinds of collaboration:

  • Ubiquitous connectivity through mobile devices
  • Radical increases in computing power available to individuals
  • Narrowing corporate focus onto core competencies
  • Demand for innovation from networks of contractors, suppliers, consultants, and vendors
  • The ongoing transformation of employees into subcontractors

They argue that these trends are powerful headwinds in favor of free agents, while also demanding new skills. Free agents often don’t know how to structure deals with each other, making it difficult for them to take on projects that are too large and complex for an individual to handle alone. They also fear losing control of the customer relationship that is their lifeblood, and potentially not being compensated for their intellectual property. Not to mention legal and tax liabilities involved in hiring and paying others to deliver services.

As far as the technology has advanced for simple, two-way transactions online, the technology for large-scale collaboration has barely moved.

FAE proposes that an effective framework for effectively building coalitions of free agents must include three things:

  1. An understanding of the “value chain” of professional services transactions
  2. A way to deliberately cultivate the relationships and behavior of the ecosystem members
  3. Agreement templates to structure service delivery and intellectual property transactions

These three components provide mechanisms and incentives for collaborating on all parts of project delivery. It allows small groups of decentralized free agents to serve more and larger clients without the overhead of large consulting firms. It offers a “relationship infrastructure” to bring just the right talent to each project – no more and no less.

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