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The age of co-operation, not competition

July 4, 2012

Why is ‘competition’ viewed as a key driver in business behaviour? We so often hear business leaders say that they embrace sustainability or new ways of operating because it provides ‘competitive advantage’.  Is business life all about competition?

‘Competition’ as a word used to mean ‘striving together’ yet now it seems to refer to working against each other, separation and self-interest.

‘Cooperation’  refers to working together and forming relationships where each can benefit.  Is this not what business is about, working together for mutual interest?  Are not successful business models ones that work with partners, suppliers, customers, stakeholders and the like?  We all know the importance of healthy relationships in business, yet overly-competitive self-interest can undermine the relationships we need to survive and thrive in these turbulent business times.

It would seem our prevailing business mindset has become rather unbalanced in its focus on competition at the expense of cooperation.

Perhaps this unbalanced view of competition goes hand-in-hand with our unbalanced view of what business and the economy is for.  Traditionally business was about value-creation – creating value for others and so benefiting oneself: mutual interest and self-interest working together in balance.  These days, with the focus on ‘maximisation of short term shareholder returns’ it would seem that ensuring ever increasing returns becomes the goal rather than value creation for customers, hence self-interest becomes the over-riding factor rather than how business contributes to the wider economy and society.

So often we hear of business goals to ‘become Number 1’ or to ‘beat the competition’ or to ‘increase market share by x%’.  While these may be useful targets, they are not exactly missions to galvanise people to work together, especially in challenging times.

As Satish Kumar says in Resurgence ‘The purpose of the economy is not just making profit for one group at the expense of another but to create the personal, social and cultural wellbeing of all’.  Working for an organisation ought to enhance the organisation, the individual and the people it seeks to serve, not simply ‘maximise the return for the shareholder’.

Business relationships are enhanced through reciprocity, mutuality and cooperation.  In fact, many insightful business people have correctly pointed out that it is collaboration (not competition) that helps organisations succeed in these challenging times.

Just as we need to balance economies of scale with economies of scope, it is sensible to balance competition with cooperation.

The prevailing business paradigm of monoculture and self-interest is weakening its own resilience; hence the time is now ripe for more diversity, cooperation and reciprocity in business to help a ‘redesigning for resilience’ in business and beyond.

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