The early, and somewhat negative, connotations of the term collaboration were formed during the Napoleonic era and then thoroughly reinforced during World War Two. The connotative reading of the term added a measure of reservation and thereby prevented an all-out enthusiastic embrace of the practice for some time.
Regardless, those early interpretations did not prevent the embrace of the concept as the most accurate reflection of what was, in effect, social, economic and technological evolution. Instead, collaboration has slowly been tested and developed as a unique form of “working together”. The specific nature of achieving the goals of two or more agencies or entities by sharing their capacities, was proving to be connected to what could be considered a social instinct; not unlike a universal drive for cooperation.
Perhaps the biggest transformation over the past two decades and in particular in last ten years is due to broader socio-cultural changes. On a global scale, clear boundaries of allies and enemies, good and bad, right and wrong, have been challenged. On the geopolitical level, it is now almost impossible to imagine the same set of principles as those that were in place, say, immediately after World War Two. Strong collaboration between the democracies of the west and communist regimes in the east would have been considered a shameful collusion a half a century ago. Today we call it a strategic partnership.
“It is perhaps that aspect of collaboration that is most revealing: instinctive capacity”
Rightly or wrongly, global trends are largely influenced by the rise of the information age, digital connectedness, shared concerns over rising socio-economic inequality, challenges associated with rising population, global biodiversity sustainability and global safety. These factors trickled down to the attitudes and beliefs of ordinary citizens who have found that enemies are not people with different religious beliefs, ethnic/cultural backgrounds, socio-economic class, or tastes. The process of reaching out between the stern boundaries of ‘us and them’ has been slowly creating an atmosphere of possibilities whereby the narrative of ‘working together’ has acquired a new meaning. Now, working together implies innovative processes whereby two seemingly incompatible entities can find a way to exchange values with a common goal in sight. In a way, collaboration is the 21st century “gold rush” of human connections.
The road from the predominant ideological interpretation of collaboration to a pragmatic approach (with the inescapable dose of populism) has been locked, in step with the social, economic and cultural attitudes of our time. It is perhaps that aspect of collaboration that is most revealing: instinctive capacity. Not long ago a group of leading figures were asked what they thought was the key to the future. They were asked to use one word. Some, like American President Bill Clinton, suggested that it would be “hope”. No doubt many would agree and many would have their own view. I am convinced that “co-operation” will by far define this century, one way or another. It is in that context that the collaboration instinct will play a much larger role in the way all forms of social organisation can hope for sustainment. Any enterprise, be it government agency, commercially minded corporation or not for profit group, is at its essence a social organisation which cannot thrive solely by considering itself an economic body. We are not going to see an end to healthy competition any time soon and nor should we hope to. However, the idea of competition that ignores the powerful forces of co-operation which inform collaborative strategy would be misguided and narrow. The collaboration instinct is subtly challenging the tyranny of the self-interest ideology which has been a crucial part of the human story to date. However, history is not the story of the future.
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