the cooperative imperative

Collaboration is working together for a common purpose, often directed externally by a boss or client. Cooperation is freely sharing with no expectation of direct reciprocity — quid pro quo. Nicholas Christakis’s ‘social suite’ is a blueprint of a range of traits that are common among all human societies, though not always manifested in the same way. One of these common traits is cooperation.

In our society, the market currently dominates how we organize. It is competitive. School is competitive, with individual grades. Work is competitive, with many more applicants than positions available. Individual performance reviews dominate in the workplace. We are told that we have to create our personal brands, because the world is competitive. But is this natural?

According to The Collaboration Paradox: Why Working Together Often Yields Weaker Results, some of the reasons that workplace collaboration fails is due to — overconfidence in our collective thinking, peer pressure to conform, and reliance on others to do the work. The article goes on to show that collaboration works when — we work with people with different skills, we do what each person does best, and we all contribute our own work.

The underlying problem with collaboration is that to be effective, collaborative work needs to be done by cooperative people. The three identified problems with collaboration are due to the nature of collaborative work. Someone is in charge and the objective is usually not shared equally by all group members. Therefore some may be prone to slack off or not care. Others will be more interested in their status within the group, and how they are perceived by the leader and then try to game the system.

Cooperation is the essence of relationships between living things. We have evolved to cooperate.

“We found evolution will punish you if you’re selfish and mean. For a short time and against a specific set of opponents, some selfish organisms may come out ahead. But selfishness isn’t evolutionarily sustainable.” —The Independent 2013-08-02

Cooperation is the social imperative.

“Survival of the fittest is a convenient way to justify the cutthroat ethos of a competitive marketplace, political landscape, and culture. But this perspective misconstrues the theories of Darwin as well as his successors. By viewing evolution though a strictly competitive lens, we miss the bigger story of our own social development and have trouble understanding humanity as one big, interconnected team.” —Douglas Rushkoff

From a market perspective, one might say that everyone has to be highly competitive. But hyper-competition will eventually decrease the value of human knowledge networks which consist of both tangible and intangible asset transactions. Trust is an intangible asset. It enables knowledge to flow. People do not share with those they do not trust.

Imagine a labour network where people change tasks and roles frequently. They have to continuously form and re-form teams. A competitive strategy may work in the short term, but eventually the network will deny trust to such people. In the end, the competitors will become disconnected from the rest of the network. Like the prisoner’s dilemma, in networks it is best to start with trust. As our organizations move to more networked models, cooperation becomes the best long term strategy for work.

A network society has the potential to extend civil society, while obsolescing control and hierarchies. It retrieves the cooperation that once existed with tribal 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 reversal does not happen.

As Yaneer Bar-Yam explains in Complexity Rising, hierarchies have diminishing usefulness as complexity increases. Lateral connections are created through cooperation.

“At the point at which the collective complexity reaches the complexity of an individual, the process of complexity increase encounters the limitations of hierarchical structures. Hierarchical structures are not able to provide a higher complexity and must give way to structures that are dominated by lateral interactions.”

marshall mcluhan terad on a network society

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