I find it worthwhile to acknowledge that the human condition leaves us vulnerable to a fairly significant problem:
We have no idea who we are.
You would be hard-pressed to find another species that can find itself on the first day of its sophomore year of college looking in their dorm room mirror, asking the question “Who am I?” That experience is unique to the human race.
Organic structures seem to exist solely on the basis of function; we are the exception to the rule. In fact, I would say it’s uncommon to find anyone under the age of 40 who has an accurate understanding of their identity as a human. On the other hand, my dog, Rider, seems to have embraced his identity and the porcupine roaming around my neighbour’s backyard seems to be fairly confident in hers. Humans don’t go around wondering if they are petunias or hamsters and if they did they’d be given medication and institutionalization. Yet, there is something much deeper about being human that forces us to go several layers deeper into the purpose of our existence on this planet.
That thing is agency.
What separates us from robots is creativity, responsibility and accountability. What separates us from all other organic structures is agency. Agency is defined as the capacity, condition, or state of acting or of exerting power. To have agency is to have power. To give someone else agency is to give them some or all of your power. A marketing agency works on your behalf using your power or agency by proxy. A professional sports agent works on behalf of an athlete to negotiate their contracts by transferring the legal power to negotiate with another person to work on their behalf.
Humans have power. Humans can transfer that power to another human. No one else can do that.
The employees who make up our organic organizations have agency, they have power. At the height of the industrial revolution, humans had very little agency. The economy was shifting dramatically from the wealthy landowners or the aristocracy to the industrialists who were utilizing technology to scale human effort like nothing we’ve ever seen before. For the working class, who had been stripped of agency by the aristocracy for centuries, this was an opportunity to get it back. And so the working class flocked to factories across the western world by the hundreds of thousands. Children as young as five worked for pennies on the dollar of their adult counterparts. But as underpaid as they were, and as harsh as the working conditions were, they had their agency back, and that is the thing the American dream is made of. Agency means the ability to choose, the ability to be self-determined, to be free.
Today, the world’s largest economies no longer rely on steam engines to scale human capacity. We have the computer for that. With the Information Revolution has come an explosion in human agency. I built my first website for money in 1999 when I was in the sixth grade. That’s not child labour, that’s agency. Today, the people who come to work for us are what give our companies value. Collectively and individually, their skills, expertise and creations are the only things that give our companies value. No people mean no company. In a knowledge-based economy, the people have the knowledge, not the aristocrats, and not the factory owners – the people do. That’s agency. And that agency is about to massively disrupt what we like to call ‘work’.