cooperation for the network era

Clark Quinn recently asked, as have many others, the difference between collaboration and cooperation, and why it is important.

“collaboration means ‘working together’. That’s why you see it in market economies. markets are based on quantity and mass.

cooperation means ’sharing’. That’s why you see it in networks. In networks, the nature of the connection is important; it is not simply about quantity and mass …

You and I are in a network – but we do not collaborate (we do not align ourselves to the same goal, subscribe to the same vision statement, etc), we *cooperate*” —Stephen Downes

Cooperation makes more sense as the term to describe working together in a networked and non-directed relationship. This is an important distinction from collaboration. For example, Jérôme Delacroix also sees cooperation as the suitable term for what we do in networks [in French]. Jérôme explains why his site is called Coopératique and not Collaboratique – collaboration happens around some kind of plan or structure, while cooperation presumes the freedom of individuals to join and participate. He also says that cooperation, not collaboration, is a driver of creativity. It is difficult to be creative while collaborating, because the objective has already been established.

Work in networks requires different skills than in directed hierarchies. Cooperation is a fundamental behaviour for effectively working in networks, and it’s in networks where most of us, and our children, will be working. Cooperation presumes the freedom of individuals to join and participate. People in networks cannot be told what to do, only influenced through other nodes (people) due to their reputation. If people don’t like you, they won’t connect. 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.

While all levels of complexity exist in our world, more and more of our work deals with real complex problems (in which the relationship between cause and effect can only be perceived in retrospect), whether they be social, technological, or economic. Complex environments and problems are best addressed when we organize as networks, work to continuously develop emergent practices, and cooperate to advance our aspirations.

Cooperation is not the same as collaboration, though they are complementary. Teams, groups, and markets collaborate. Online social networks and communities of practice cooperate. Working cooperatively requires a different mindset than merely collaborating on a defined project.

Organizations need to extend the notion of work beyond collaboration, beyond teams, and beyond the corporate fire wall. They need to make social networks, communities of practice, and narrative part of the work. It’s a big leap but we need to change the business conversation away from confident military terms (target market, strategic plan, marketing campaign) and instead talk in terms of complexity, wicked problems, and cooperation.

We are moving from a market economy to a network economy and 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). Cooperation 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 cooperation and this is the future, which is already here, albeit unevenly distributed.

Shifting the emphasis of work from collaboration, which still is required to get tasks done, to cooperation, in order to thrive in a networked enterprise, means reassessing some of our assumptions and work practices. For instance:

  • The lessening importance of teamwork, versus exploring outside the organization may change our perceptions about being a ‘team player’.
  • Detailed roles and job descriptions are inadequate for work at the edge.
  • Getting rid of individual performance reviews and focusing the performance of the whole organization.

One major challenge is that cooperation is much less controllable than our institutions, hierarchies, and HR practices would like to accept.

Here is an example from nature. Martin Nowak, a mathematical biologist, concludes The Evolution of Cooperation with the following winning strategy:

“What I find very interesting in these games of conditional reciprocity, direct and indirect reciprocity, we can make the point that winning strategies have the following three properties: they must be generous, hopeful and forgiving.

Generous in the following sense: if I have a new interaction, now I realize (and this is I think where most people go wrong) that this is not a game where it’s either the other person or me who is winning. Most of our interactions are not like a tennis game in the US Open where one person loses and one person goes to the next round. Most of our interactions are more like let us share the pie and I’m happy to get 49 percent, but the pie is not destroyed. I’m willing to make a deal, and sometimes I accept less than 50 percent. The worst outcome would be to have no deal at all. So in that sense, generous means I never try to get more than the other person. Tit-for-tat never wins in any single encounter; neither does Generous Tit-for-tat.

Hopeful is that if there is a new person coming, I start with cooperation. My first move has to be cooperation. If a strategy starts with defection, it’s not a winning strategy.

And forgiving, in the sense that if the other person makes a mistake, there must be a mechanism to get over this and to reestablish cooperation.” —Martin Nowak

This clearly shows how cooperation differs from collaboration. To be generous, hopeful, and forgiving will in the long run make for stronger networks and communities. It works in nature. Cooperation is a necessary behaviour to be open to serendipity and encourage experimentation.

Network societies are mainly cooperative. The rules are no longer clear, as they are in institutions or market economies. When we know who we are working with (suppliers, partners, customers) then collaboration is optimal. But in networks, someone may be our supplier or even our boss one day and our customer the next, so cooperation becomes the best behaviour. In such a society, people can have multiple valences as nodes in many networks at the same time. Successful individuals in a network society will see that their connections change over time, and that openly sharing will make them more valued nodes in the long run. In networks, cooperation is simultaneously altruistic and selfish.

We are becoming the global village described by Marshall McLuhan, and like a tribal village, certain aspects of human behaviours that we have ignored for centuries are becoming important as we move into a network society. For instance, there was little privacy in the village, as there seems to be no more privacy today. While we will not repeat the past, there is much we can learn from it.

A network society has the potential to extend civil society, while obsolescing hierarchies. It retrieves the cooperation that once existed with kinship, but when pushed to its limits might reverse into the deception of a surveillance society. Cooperation among its citizens and peers may ensure the latter does not happen.

9 Responses to “cooperation for the network era”

  1. Alejok

    Dear Dr. Jarche, I have been following your posts for a while now and let me tell you that Im not tired about it. As I was re-reading this post for a course on cooperation im into right now, maybe is good to ask for any recommendation or some other sources for claryfing the dif. from collab. to cooper.

    ¿What new have called your atention recently?

    Thanks for this post. Bests,

    Bogotá, Colombia.


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