Book review: Could co-operation be the best model for the new economy?

'It is our ability to co-operate in large numbers that separates us from other species'

Collaborative Advantage: How collaboration beats competition as a strategy for success: Paul Skinner, Robinson, 2018, £13.99

If there is a common theme to discussions of the economy – from local to global level – it is that we are undergoing a period of huge change.

This has prompted the co-operative movement to argue that new business models, based on collaboration rather than competition, are better suited to the challenges and opportunities this brings.

It’s an idea taken up in this new book from Paul Skinner, a visiting fellow at Edge Hill University business school. He is the founder of Agency of the Future, a collaborative business consultancy, and Pimp My Cause, which assists charities and social enterprises.

Modern technology has brought new opportunities for mass collaboration, he argues – and collaboration is more effective than competition for mobilising staff, customers and other stakeholders. It fosters innovation, allows growth to outstrip resources, brings a better understanding of value creation, and brings “a true understanding of human decision-making”.

But how can businesses take advantage of this? Skinner argues that a new ways of thinking are needed to transform business strategy and marketing. He sets out five steps:

  • find a common purpose that ‘sows the seed of a new story’
  • create opportunities by finding ways to engage in the common purpose
  • engage participation by creating defined roles and customs
  • iterate and accelerate by developing a deeper understanding of early adopters
  • build partnerships to help the organisation grow faster and further.

He builds his argument with a useful study of the rise and fall of the highly competitive business ethos of the last 20th century, which has “remained the dominant metaphor for business and organisational strategy”. He identifies the flaws in the model, which can lead to counter-productive goals, and understates the role of creativity in unlocking value.

And in an age of rampant business disruptors, it can leave organisations with a blind spot when it comes to identifying new challengers because they are so heavily focused on established rivals.

It’s also unnatural, he argues, pointing put that “it is our ability to co-operate in large numbers that separates us from other species”.

This leads him to his version of co-operation, the collaborative advantage – an “optimistic concept” which “recognises that value can also be created anywhere in in the eco-system in which a business operates … Organisational success is born out of fostering an optimal relationship with the entire external environment that maximises the combined total value-creating process and generates benefits for the organisation, further enhancing the lives of the customers it serves”.

It’s also socially rewarding, he adds, giving the example of neurological experiments which found that working collaboratively leads to people using different parts of the their brains which triggers greater empathy.

Skinner concludes with a look at how his ideas have changed his attitude to his work in marketing – which, he says: “should be about finding the optimal way to cultivate the world’s financial, material and intellectual potential for the greatest possible good”.

In a world facing challenges such as poverty, climate change, terrorism and war, it’s vital that the collaborative ethos is communicated effectively, he says. As a marketing man, he frames it as a brand agenda called Surthrival – “the process of growing stronger in a world of complex risks” by building new collaborative skills and technologies.

Ending the book on an optimistic note, he hopes this ethos will help the world navigate its way through the challenges to come, by “making a humanitarian out of everyone”.



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