Cooperation first, competition next, corporation last

Cooperation goes beyond a corporation’s internal processes, past the boundaries of the organisation and across the borders of countries and continents. Here's why this is a good time for this realisation

Updated: Aug 17, 2020 05:10:55 PM UTC
Image: Shutterstock

The aims of life are the best defence against death” -Primo Levi

Survival is not compulsory. It is a wilful choice.

As a species, there is no place for us in the world where our existential threats won’t find us. Be it a viral pandemic, environmental degradation, loss of species or resource depletion, we are all in it together. We are inescapably in the same small boat on very choppy seas.

The reason why humans have been unable to cooperate on a global scale has to do with our evolutionary hard-wiring and how we perceive our self-interest. It has forever been a story of ‘us’ versus ‘them’. We have never recognised mankind as one collective entity. Our genetic biases deter cooperation.

Paradoxically, our social and economic life is dependent on our ability to organise into large groups and manage the complex interrelationships between individuals. Doing business and making a profit is something that makes us willing collaborators. This is a case of evolution by the spread of culture rather than purely via natural selection.

Richard Dawkins has defined a ‘meme’ as a piece of cultural information. Memes act in our mind much the same as genes do in reproduction. As ideas, they replicate from one to another carrier through communication between people. They change and adapt, often replicating improperly. Still, this mutation keeps them relevant. Memes compete with other memes for survival. The most memorable, persuasive, useful and malleable memes survive by exciting listeners throughout a chain of transmission. This is an abiding example of cooperation. You share with those who matter to you. We need to expand that definition to embrace the world.

What I want to convey is something that doesn’t occur to us naturally, namely that cooperation and competition are fruits of the same tree. We must learn to cooperate while competing whether in business, as individuals, within entire gene pools or amongst corporations.

Of these, the modern corporation is unique because it can pursue internal as well as external cooperation. A corporation is an ever shifting network of co-operators. It uses economic resources such as capital, technology and knowledge to provide customers with what they want in exchange for profits. Cooperation goes beyond a corporation’s internal processes, past the boundaries of the organisation and across the borders of countries and continents.

The relative growth of a corporation is observed to be a function of how well it competes. But, in fact, cooperation is the right spirit to cultivate rather than competing for narrow good. Since we are self-interested, as people and as institutions, this realisation doesn’t come naturally.  If we want to succeed at an individual, institutional and societal level, we must be selfish enough to collaborate.

‘The Theory of Co-opetition’ was proposed by Adam Brandenburger and Barry Nalebuff in 1996. By their definition, cooperation is how value is created while competition is how value is captured. To create the market, industry, sector or pie we must cooperate. To grab our share or slice of it, we must compete.

Indeed, much of what is most valuable in the world has emerged from cooperation. Yet, culturally, we over emphasise the lore of the competition. Cooperatively, we run families, society, local economies, and trade in goods, services, ideas and technologies. Business creates wealth that didn’t exist before. It ought to be grounded in reciprocity. Only ‘win-win’ can thrive whereas ‘win-lose’ can only lead to conflict.

Competition and cooperation are not polar opposites. In fact they are compliments to each other. Being exclusionary over the longer run is being suicidal.

Surviving and thriving are both team sports.

If we can begin this process of learning and self-realisation now, at a time when our mortal existence is threatened due to the relentless advance of coronavirus, we will make it a happier world for ourselves.

The writer is Global Head, Marketing at Royal Enfield. He writes regularly on brand building, social trends, history, technology and politics. Views expressed are personal

Read his previous blogs here


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