Collaboration, as I argue continuously, provides a competitive advantage to enterprises across industries and sectors. The key to unlocking that competitive advantage is to better understand both the collaboration practice and your own enterprise’s position in the market. Effectively, this necessitates approaching collaboration as a strategy that can deliver efficiency gains in any one specific area of organisational functioning.
The immediate instinct for many would be to focus on making gains at the end of the production process; that is, sales of products and services. While there is nothing particularly unusual about this approach, it indicates a degree of ignorance as to what collaboration can do best. Collaboration is very attractive to people who start with a critical understanding that current production methods have largely shifted (and continue to shift) away from tools used by workers, to workers themselves. As futurist Rolf Jensen points out, workers are now the means of production, which changes the whole ‘meaning of work’ paradigm.
To fully understand the real potential of collaboration, we need to first and foremost start with a conceptual understanding that any organisation or enterprise is a socio-economic entity. In fact any entity is a socio-economic entity; a country is socio-economic entity and so is a city, or any kind of community. Entities mix together in processes that encompass laws, traditions, cultural norms, and unwritten rules (customs) etc. Through these cultural processes, entities effectively meet a variety of needs they would otherwise not be able to meet as effectively. The interactions that take place is a critical part of what makes us human. The need for that interaction is guided by people’s needs to create and reaffirm their identity in any one setting, including the workplace.
Over the past two centuries or so, the overarching narrative has been based on an implicit promise of the better life that increased financial return can deliver through enterprise. However, this narrative has been largely exhausted and today we see trends and changes whereby engagement of employees requires far many more resources, which inevitably adds to the cost of production. Wage increases continue to be one of the measures applied to deal with some symptomatic issues, but this has increasingly been proven not to produce lasting effects. In a large part this is due to the fact that meaningful engagement cannot be simply rewarded with a cash incentive.
It is within this context that collaboration could be deployed as a strategy. Designing the culture of collaboration can be a way of offsetting some of the costs associated with the lack of engagement that subsequently causes a drop in productivity. It is vital to note that we are talking about the critical lack of engagement found in many economies including Australia. One study cites 74% as the rate of staff that are not engaged. The cost of this cannot be overestimated. While the complexities surrounding the causes of this non-engagement need to be better understood, one of the factors is the failing narrative of the past. Work no longer can be presented as a financial goal. Work is a ‘meaning-making’ process of significant importance for an increased number of people. Enter collaboration!
Collaboration is about the creative quality of experience that employees seek while engaged in the production of goods and services. It is in this area that a competitive advantage can be gained because enterprises that nurture an internal collaboration culture and are prepared to collaborate across sectors and industries, offer a narrative to their workforce which forms the basis for better engagement, an engagement which generates a small but accumulative difference in output, that is realised through the efficiencies of an attitudinal change by the workforce.
Employees are now the means of production. While this is not universal across all sectors and industries, it certainly is a trend. The production of ideas, solutions, knowledge etc. is a realm that comes directly from the workers. The competitive advantage of collaboration is found in its capacity to offer a richer sense of engagement and a new narrative which cannot be found in the promise of unending financial reward.
A collaborative culture in any enterprise allows for the mediated design of a trusted environment (or at the very least trust-building environment). Collaboration in any organisation allows for creation of a culture which offers employees the ability to create new meaning which is an essential form of motivation for productivity.
The competitive advantage is not solely based on how we sell more products; it is about how we can be more sustained in selling more products. The cost of production which will hamper competition has to be addressed at the level of experiential design for the worker: the principal means of production!
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