Co-operation: from soft skill to hard skill

What are known as soft skills, like getting along with others, are becoming much more important than commonly known hard skills. This is still not a general perception amongst business leaders; as recently as last year, Management-Issues reported:

The annual CEO study by PricewaterhouseCoopers has argued that what companies around the world are crying out for is CEOs with technical and business expertise, who have global experience, are strong leaders, innovative, creative and who can manage risk effectively.

People skills, while a bonus, were not seen as an essential, despite the fact that fewer than half of CEOs globally (and around a third in the UK) felt their HR department could manage the people agenda adequately by itself.

Work in networks requires different skills than in directed hierarchies, which have nurtured these CEO’s for the past decades. Co-operation is a foundational behaviour for effectively working in networks, and it’s in networks where most of us, and our children, will be working. Co-operation presumes the freedom of individuals to join and participate so that people in the network cannot be told what to do, only influenced. If they don’t like you, they won’t connect. That’s like being on Twitter with no followers and never getting Retweeted (RT). You are a lone node and of little value to the network. In a hierarchy you only have to please your boss. In a network you have to be seen as having some value, though not the same value, by many others.

Co-operation is not the same as collaboration, though they are complementary. Collaboration requires a common goal while co-operation is sharing without any specific objectives. Teams, groups and markets collaborate. Online social networks and communities of practice co-operate. Working co-operatively requires a different mindset than merely collaborating on a defined project. Being co-operative means being open to others outside your group and casting off business metaphors based on military models (target markets, chain of command, line & staff).


We are moving from a market economy to a network economy and the the level of complexity is increasing with this hyper-connectedness. Managing in complex adaptive systems means influencing possibilities rather than striving for predictability (good or best practices). Co-operation in our work is needed so that we can continuously develop emergent practices demanded by this complexity. What worked yesterday won’t work today. No one has the definitive answer any more but we can use the intelligence of our networks to make sense together and see how we can influence desired results. This is co-operation and this is the future, which is already here, albeit unevenly distributed.

Co-operation is a soft skill? I think not.

14 Responses to “Co-operation: from soft skill to hard skill”

  1. Nancy White

    Thanks for the useful and provocative post, Harold. I have a few questions.

    First, can you say more when you say cooperation is not a soft skill? (Or for that fact, what distinguishes a soft from a hard skill?)

    Second, you say cooperation doesn’t have shared objectives. I want to throw in a bit of a twist. Like the hard-to-identify transition between communities and networks, the transition between cooperation and collaboration can be equally fuzzy. What starts as cooperation around common interest can segue to objectives of collaboration. What is critical is finding the common interest that triggers cooperation –however it ends up or evolves.

    Some of the declarations you made, i.e. “communities of practice cooperate,” are mutable. So while I am agreeing at the conceptual level, I’d be cautious about these stronger categorizations. Collaboration and cooperation happen in communities and networks. Cooperation also happens in organizations.

    It is what people do that matters, no?

    • Harold Jarche

      When I saw your name, I knew you would ask an interesting question, Nancy 😉

      I wouldn’t say that co-operation is a soft skill, but HR hacks have been saying that for a long time. Even Wikipedia says so –
      Therefore, co-operation is a soft skill from the perspective of The Corporation.

      I agree on the fuzziness between co-operation & collaboration. I guess it crosses the line when you have to get something done at a certain time (e.g. deliverables).

      Of course, what people do is what matters. My point here is that a spirit of co-operation, without any interest in achieving a specific goal, is not the same as collaborating on a task. That spirit of giving freely, without any objective of recompense, enables networks and differentiates them from teams.

      What is a community? I’m not sure. A mix of collaborative and co-operative behaviours exhibited by some combination of networks and groups (?).

  2. Paul Jansen - @pauljansen

    Right on the dot! Thanks. I (re)tweeted this article as many don’t, but should, understand the impact of the reality you so eloquently and succinctly describe.

    • Harold Jarche

      Thanks, Paul. It’s a theme I’ve been working on most of the year and in re-writing it several times it’s becoming clearer in my own mind. Nice to know it makes sense to others as well.

  3. David Hodgson

    thanks for the excellent post Harold. I think this correlates with the power of weak ties in a network. Weak ties tend to be co-operative rather than collaborative, and it is these weak ties that often bring the most generative information into a network as they are the ones that are most likely to bridge divergent clusters.

    Where I would extend the model slightly is that there is, perhaps, another line that can be added to the bottom of your table, where the chaotic domain is revisited from the perspective of the network. It depends in some sense on how the boundary is drawn between complex and chaotic. If a network can still be operational is the situation truly chaotic? In a truly chaotic system is the situation too dynamic for any meta layer of organization to be able to exist? I can imagine a chaotic situation in which the network, or the idea of the network, is still implicit, if much weaker than in a complex situation, and in which it is providing the skeleton which stabilizes the chaotic situation sufficiently for it to transition back to the complex rather than the imposition of order which brings it into the simple. So though tribal and action oriented is the effective response, it is informed by the idea of the network, which gives it a different flavor than in the preinstitutional variant.

    • Harold Jarche

      Or perhaps the network looks beyond its boundaries, where there is chaos, and sends out pioneers (tribes) to try novel approaches and see if they can sense any patterns in the chaos. Most interesting, David, thank you.

  4. Nancy White

    Slowing returning back (darn the h1n1 flu!)

    Thanks for the clarifications, Harold. I think one area we can all do some work in is in this mistaken idea that these “soft skills” are just “fluffy bunny.” When did soft get to be a bad word, eh? 😉 Think about negotiation, mediation, sales — corporations don’t think those are fluffy bunny!

    David’s comments on weak ties are to me at the core of the matter, as is something that I’m not sure what it is really called, but what I’m calling “adjacency.” Something that sits just next to what you are interested in. IN networks, we get a line of sight to things that are not just spot on to what we are interested in, but things adjacent, giving us more access to diversity. Maybe this is also that zone David is speaking to. I’m not sure. Maybe it is the flu, or maybe I just haven’t grasped it firmly, but it feels like something important.

    This area is why I tell people they need to stop doing SOMETHING in their work life and pay attention to their network participation as it gives great value. But my suggestion is still so damn fuzzy, it is as bad as a fluffy bunny. 😉

    • Harold Jarche

      Nancy, your comment had me go back to Franz Johansson’s book, The Medici Effect: Breakthrough Insights at the Intersection of Ideas, Concepts & Cultures.

      “There is logic to intersectional ideas, but the logic is not obvious. Obvious logic, for instance, tells us that it makes sense to prepare and budget a detailed plan of execution while pursuing directional ideas. What is not so obvious is that doing so at the Intersection can lead to failure. Obvious logic tells us to develop detailed, clear reward structures while pursuing directional ideas. What is not so obvious is that this will be self-defeating at the Intersection. Seemingly obvious logic tells us that having more resources should reduce the risk of failure at the Intersection. What is not so obvious is that the more resources we have, the more we will use – and thus the risk of failure remains the same. We may also find it strange that we do not have a better chance of achieving groundbreaking innovation by specializing in a field. But if we step into the Intersection, we can go from a mere 2,400 available concept combinations to almost six million – how do you compete with this?” [page 189]

    • Harold Jarche

      The sub-title explains it fairly well, but here’s more from the book:

      “When we say that the Brain Science Program sits at the intersection of mathematics and medicine, of computer science and neurophysiology, what we are really saying is that the people in the program have managed to connect these fields, and through these connections they have come up with new creative insights. Individuals, teams or organizations step into the Intersection by associating concepts from one field with concepts in another.”

      “The key difference between a field and an intersection of fields lies in how concepts within them are combined. If you operate within a field, you primarily are able to combine concepts within that particular field, generating ideas that evolve along a particular direction – what I call directional ideas. When you step into the Intersection, you can combine concepts between multiple fields, generating ideas that leap in new directions – what I call intersectional ideas. The difference between these two types of ideas is significant”


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