Changing the art of ‘working but not producing’…[or when collaboration came to town]

I often wonder to what extent workers in the 21st century associate the ideas of collaboration and work as being inseparable. Perhaps the self-evident truth doesn’t need much reflection. But only just, as I am inclined to think that the changing context presents a challenge to better understand this seemingly simple relationship. The central point here is the idea that for work to be productive it has to have meaning. And in my view all meaning is relative to the human context. Which is why collaboration can offer more than a solution to the means itself, but also improve the means in a much better way.

As Rolf Jensen remarked (perhaps a little bit tongue-in-cheek) finally Karl Marx’s vision of workers being in charge of the means of production have come true, because humans are the means in a new economy where values are produced by knowledge, imagination and intuition. The very idea of work changes over time. The factors that drive that change are varied and the final picture of how work defines people and vice versa is what creates the overall socio-cultural systems within which we live. All of this points to the vital role that meaningful work plays in a competitive enterprise.

So, why ‘changing the art of working but not producing’? Mainly because modern workers (in advanced economies at least) do not lack work; but rather struggle to find meaning in their work. The idea of work and meaning has become one of the most critical drivers in contemporary enterprises. The difference between companies whose workers are meaningfully engaged and those whose workers are not, often translates into a clear competitive advantage. There is no consensus on whose responsibility is to ‘create’ meaning at work. While the current buzz is mostly skewed towards the idea that companies should be smart and engage workers with a view of assisting them in creating and discovering meaning at work, there are many who warn against this approach. A range of policies and approaches exist; all come with major investment cost but not all produce clear mutual benefit.

Clearly, there is a connection between meaningful work and productivity. It is also very clear that these factors have a higher cost and are of more critical importance in some industries more than others. So the search for a balance in the way meaningful work translates into productivity continues. As a result of this ongoing struggle, a significant cohort of workers engage in work by being busy but the net result is not what it can be when meaning and human endeavour match well. It is in this context that I see collaborative instinct as having the potential to change all that; the basic premise being the notion that work that is done collaboratively is far more likely to be meaningful! It is that simple. Missing out on this in daily work practice is in my opinion a costly mistake.

Leaders in any enterprise need to grasp the collaboration instinct if they are to reduce the cost of production. Humans can produce ideas faster when a system provided to them allows for great collaboration, connection and human closeness. This implicitly means that collaboration as a practice is worth investing in, in lieu of many other programs that are harder to sustain in the long run. Paying for expensive team building retreats, professional upskilling, perks, performance bonuses and so on can add value. But, it is a case of fun while the music lasts. This is reflected in the synthetic nature of the organisation, not the authentic core it can and should be based on – the human element.

Organisations are synthetic systems whose relevance, resilience, sustainability and competitiveness increasingly depend on an ability to evolve. To evolve into authentic systems that is; systems that bear relevance to their main value producers – the people. This is where the task becomes futile without collaboration. Collaboration is an instinctive part of human nature and it applies equally to work and family life. Building on this part of essential humanness is what transforms an enterprise into a resilient business. Collaborative workers build trust, connections and capacities that significantly reduce the sense of meaningless work. Business leaders know how to look after their means of production. In the past this meant machines. Now it means the people who carry knowledge with them. The math is simple.

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