Owning Purpose in an API Economy

Last night I was part of a rich conversation about the changing nature of work and the societal implications that was convened by the Catalyst Circle. There were many rich themes to explore in that conversation but one struck me with force:

How do we reconcile tensions of purpose in an API Economy?

The API Economy

As transactional costs decline on platforms and there is an increasing integration of the global economy, the Application Protocol Interface (‘API’) becomes the default form of interaction. APIs standardize the interactions with and between platforms to reduce the friction at interfaces. Not all APIs need be technology driven. Throughout history, temporary labour and gig economy platforms of all kinds standardize work, interactions, and labour to make transactions easier, supply greater, and workers comparable and fungible.

As the API Economy grows, smaller companies can operate as larger organizations by pulling on demand labour from these platforms.  Interactions and work that used to be managed within organizations boundaries are now managed by the API. Relationships can become more transactional and less bespoke. If you fail to fit the API, you won’t proceed further, an experience many are already encountering as job applicant management systems take over candidate screening.

Owning Our Purpose

We have always owned our own unique personal purpose.  However, large organizations and their culture of compliance have meant many people have left the management of collective purpose to others.  They have gone along with the needs of the organizational purpose and failed to consider their own.  Many employees have left considering the everyday tensions within purpose to other leaders to consider and resolve.

In an API economy, purpose is not part of the transaction dynamics. The hirer has theirs. You need to manage your own.  Conflicts or tensions of purpose don’t enter into the equation. You take work that fulfills your personal purpose as you see it and you let the rest go. Conflicts and tensions of purpose are friction and will likely fall out of the system. The API does not care for your opinion of a better way to work.

We can protect our own execution of our personal purpose in this environment. Everyone is clearly accountable to manage themselves in a transactional market that operates in this way. What is at risk is the creative leadership of collective purpose. An API Economy will produce optimal outcomes if the forces of individual purpose create an optimal collective outcome as people pursue their own agendas. The ‘invisible hand’ can do much, but it is also clear from history that we have had to supplement market outcomes with other structures to address uncertainty and manage market breakdowns.

Creative Tensions of Purpose

Every personal purpose has its own uncertainties and tensions. Scale these up at a collective level in an organization and one of the key roles of a leader is to keep a vibrant conversation and action going on the tensions between individual and collective purpose. Leaders help communities of people reconcile the tensions of purpose in creative ways.

An API excludes these tensions. Instead of the voice of employees discussing their opinions, an API supplies supply for a particular purpose. An absence of an adequate supply is a signal but it is a blunt one. Recent history of platform models suggests that these signals can be obscured by many factors: growth, hype, new labour market entrants, organizational culture or other dynamics.

As we move into these transactional models of work in an API Economy, the role of leaders will increasingly to be exploring these creative tensions of purpose beyond the boundaries of the organization.  The conversations you had with employees will now be had with your labour market community on the platform.  You can choose to treat these individuals as a transactional market, but you will surrender rich information and new levers of motivation. Engage these workers as a community and you will have new opportunities. Leaders will need to convene, navigate and engage these communities to learn and to adapt the business to new value opportunities that are revealed by the creative tensions of purpose within that external community.  These tensions will expose organizations to even wider communities of stakeholders. Treat all of these communities transactionally, relying only on your APIs, and you will miss business & social opportunities to create value.


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