We must move beyond competitive self-interest to mature collaboration as a social body.
By Carrie Freeman and Michael Karlberg, SecondMuse
The last century has witnessed an unprecedented expansion of economic activity. Yet the material prosperity generated by this activity is enjoyed by only a small portion of the Earth’s population, and extremes of wealth and poverty are growing. The prevailing approach to economic expansion is also beginning to undermine the local and global ecosystems that human health and well-being depend on.
Furthermore, the social and ecological problems facing humanity are becoming so complex that they cannot be addressed by individuals or organizations acting in self-interested and competitive ways. Therefore, at this critical juncture in history, it is becoming an evolutionary imperative to move from self-interested competition to collaboration for the common good.
Against this backdrop, SecondMuse is dedicated to advancing the art and science of collaboration as a means of solving complex problems, and co-creating shared and sustainable prosperity, within an interdependent global society. A few of our initial ventures along these lines include Random Hacks of Kindness (RHoK), Understanding Risk and Launch.
Based on these ventures, we know that fostering and facilitating collaboration across diverse sectors – business, government, and civil society – is a viable enterprise. And we invite others to examine these ventures and join us in this work.
But beyond examining these specific ventures, we also invite others to examine the deeper, underlying insights that drive and inform them. These insights, which we touch on briefly below, are elaborated in our chapter in Creating Good Work The World’s Leading Social Entrepreneurs Show How to Build a Healthy Economy (Palgrave Macmillan) titled “From Competition to Collaboration: Toward a New Framework for Entrepreneurship.”
In order to move beyond the prevailing culture of contest and create a more just and sustainable social order, entrepreneurs will need to critically re-examine the concept of competition that underlies most economic activity today.
Competition, as the term is widely used today, tends to conflate two distinct sets of ideas that need to be disentangled. When people use the word competition, they are often referring simultaneously to:
- the pursuit of excellence, innovation, and productivity within a market system, and
- the self-interested pursuit of mutually exclusive gains, with resultant winners and losers.
The problem with conflating these two sets of ideas is that there is no necessary correspondence between A and B. Indeed, self-interested competition can actually undermine excellence, innovation, and productivity.
Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic Rewards
Moreover, while self-interest can clearly be a motivating force in human behavior, other motives can be just as powerful, if not more so. These other deep wells of motivation include the intrinsic rewards that come from the pursuit of excellence, innovation, and productivity. They also include the motivation to contribute to the betterment of the world, to enact a higher meaning and purpose in one’s life, or to make material sacrifices for a higher cause. Indeed, throughout history, many people have been motivated to give their time, their energy, and in some cases their lives, for an ennobling purpose or cause.
In contrast, where is the self-interested actor who has tapped into equivalent sources of motivation in the name of competitive acquisition?
Once we disaggregate conventional notions of competition, we can see that the most valuable aspects of “competition” – the pursuit of excellence, innovation, and productivity – are not contingent on self-interested behaviors, and they need not result in winners or losers. On the contrary, they assume their most mature form within a framework of cooperation and mutual gains – or a framework of collaboration.
Collaboration and Self-Interest
Collaboration, in its broadest sense, refers to cooperation among diverse individuals, groups, or organizations working together systematically to achieve a common goal.
In recent years, significant attention has been paid to the development of more effective collaboration among diverse individuals or entities within organizations. However, such intra-organizational collaboration is often encouraged merely to enable an organization to compete more effectively against other organizations for access to scarce resources, markets, profits, and so forth.
Likewise, some attention has also been paid to inter-organizational collaboration, but largely for the same reasons: to enable partner organizations to compete more effectively against rivals in zero-sum relationships. Collaboration, in other words, is still widely viewed as a strategy of self-interested competition.
Collaboration: From Social Contest To Social Body
Unfortunately, this self-interested view of collaboration is part of an anachronistic worldview that is becoming deeply maladaptive under today’s conditions of ever-increasing social and ecological interdependence. Under these conditions, the well-being of every individual and group is increasingly dependent on the well-being of the entire social body.
These new conditions, therefore, require us to adopt a more mature conception of social and ecological relationships. Rather than viewing society as an arena for self-interested competition, we need to begin viewing it as a complex living system – or an organic whole. In other worlds, we need to reframe our conception of society by shifting from a social contest frame to a social body frame.
Within any healthy organic body, relations among its component cells and organs are characterized by collaboration and reciprocity – not competition. Indeed, within an organic body, the competitive hoarding of resources or the pursuit of mutually exclusive gains is a sure sign of disease. Yet these dysfunctional relations continue to dominate human societies – especially within market interactions.
In this context, we believe that collaborative dynamics – in the organic sense of the term – must increasingly characterize human relations at all levels of society, including market relations. Organic collaboration, in this sense, is characterized by diverse organizations working together systematically toward goals that benefit the entire social body. In this contemporary global context, organic collaboration – as a business plan – reflects conscious alignment with powerful evolutionary forces.
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About the Authors:
Carrie Freeman has been studying and collaborating on how business can be a key contributor in an ever-advancing civilization for nearly 20 years and strongly believes that it is the purpose and responsibility of business to improve society. Prior to recently joining SecondMuse, Carrie worked for Intel Corporation as the director of Sustainable Business Innovation.
A strong advocate for using information and communication technologies to help solve global challenges, she was responsible for developing the vision and business opportunities for Intel’s technology solutions in the areas of environment and natural resource management. Additionally, she developed other innovative strategies such as a corporate impact investing fund that targeted financial, social, as well as business strategic returns. She is on the boards of the Nature Conservancy of New Mexico and the Permaculture Credit Union and acts in an advisory capacity to the Water Innovations Alliance and the Technology Venture Corporation.
Michael Karlberg is the author of Beyond the Culture of Contest: From Adversarialism to Mutualism in an Age of Interdependence, as well as numerous journal articles and book chapters on related themes. He assisted with the development of the Harmony Equity Group’s founding conceptual framework and has since served as a consultant for SecondMuse as it seeks to advance a process of systematic learning within that framework. He is also a professor of communication at Western Washington University.