Middleman takes centre stage

The trend for outsourcing has created a dramatic increase in ‘middlemania‘ – and it’s a disease that is infecting all of us

Sue is on the line, or is it Polly or Jenny or Sally or Jilly, from Fizzgig Communications or something, to ask could you, would you, write a report pronto on an obscure subject of avowed importance to someone. Good budget.

Look no further, SallySue, say I, my enthusiasm roused violently from its stupor. Pray tell me more.  

Well, it turns out Fizzgig has been appointed to write a report by a specialist consultancy, Corporium or some such, which had been commissioned originally by a government agency after a campaign by a department of state in the wake of a report by a committee of MPs.

“So it’s for the Government?” I ask, lost in a labyrinth of sub-contracting. “Um, I’ll have to check, but that’s what we were told,” she replies. “Corporium felt it needed some additional expertise from us.”

“And you felt you needed some additional exper-,” I query, momentarily forgetting the second part of the sentence.

“Well, it’s just to give us something to work from,” fizzes JillyJenny, before rediscovering her piercing shafts of charm. “We felt it might be useful to have you on board.”

A version of this conversation occurs every few weeks. I am recalling it because it’s time to let you in on a conviction that, until now, has been the closely guarded secret of a reclusive, unclubbable, impecunious, and poorly socialised coterie of specialist freelance journalists, who write about work, but for whom the thought of going to a proper workplace would bring on neuralgic  spasms and cold sweats. Forget what you may have heard about it being the age of information, the age of the individual, the age of the corporate citizen. All humbug, of course. It is the age of the middleman.

We know this because we are dependent on them. The joy of being the agency’s sub-contractor’s outsourcing partner’s all-purpose word-fountain is that we gain insight into the whole splendid racket from the bottom up. We are the end of the chain. Someone has to originate all these words, this stuff, the reports, the bumpf that goes under the name of information, before it is passed down the estuary to be basted, tweaked, pummelled, varnished, and caressed on its way out into the sea of general consumption. We understand how modern work likes to travel.

Naturally, we are grateful for the business. And the sport, too: count the middlemen can be an enjoyable game. Yet I must confess that in idle moments, we do sometimes wonder if it might be better value if the organisation that wanted the work done spoke directly to the people who end up doing it; the middleman’s cut, after all, is rather more than a flesh wound.

In less enlightened times, it was held that the more fingers in the pie, the higher the ‘transactional costs’. Henry Ford went as far as owning the rubber plantations for his car tyres, and the railroads that transported it to his factories. But now we know better. It is far more efficient to outsource than to ‘do’. We like our pie well-pawed.

My example is admittedly a small one. Yet can the media and information trades be alone in witnessing a dramatic increase in middlemen in recent years? I doubt it. The spread of computers has created a limitless capacity to pass on work to someone else. And so the economy thrums with the sound of specialist layers being constructed between producer and consumer.

Today’s middleman is a gregarious fellow, but it takes cunning to pick a lucrative middle. Some middlemen favour the estate agent middle model of uniting buyers with sellers. Think of recruitment consultants, employment agencies, professional associations. Others favour the ‘gatekeeper’ model: firms that set themselves up as the high priests of secret knowledge – leadership development, say, or anything to do with software. Then there is the ‘you-don’t-want-to-do-it-like-that’ model favoured by consultants and experts. These are too numerous to detail, but the words ‘assessment’ and ‘selection’ should suffice. Specialisms specialise. Middles multiply. Sub-contractors sub-contract.

Yet, for a generation reared on hard work, I think the outsourcing habit is also creating a peculiar ambivalence about the ‘doing’ of work. Doing work in the sense of producing something, transforming one thing into another, is coming to be seen as a bit seedy, a bit of a slog, a bit like yesterday’s game. Thinking, advising, managing, manipulating – that’s the work of the future. Because someone who might have more specialist knowledge than us is available just a few clicks away, we dither and outsource. The goal is to make ourselves the superiors of those that actually ‘do’.

So, anyway, scarcely had Sue or was it Sally or Polly gone from the line than I set to work.

I e-mailed a hard-up freelancer about the possibility of writing an obscure, important report that I thought was for the Government, which came via a couple of middlemen. Good budget.

‘It might be useful to have you on board’ I typed, shamelessly. Pray tell me more, he replied.

We are all middlemen now.

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