Humans are tool-making animals. Our evolutionary story has, in the main, been defined by this single delineating feature of our species. While we now know that we are not the only living organisms that can craft things with our hands, or beaks or legs as the case may be, we remain somewhat outliers in the living world.
The ability to create is the essence of work. The nature of work has changed over centuries and with it, its purpose and meaning. Along with this we as humans are changing. Work is increasingly becoming a special space in our life, as the dynamic of family, community and city life changes. The meaning of work is in turn impacting on how groups of people, be they in cities, regions or countries, are defining themselves and the culture within which they exist. Essential to all this is our sense of togetherness. We share our lives. We work and create together in organised but sometimes very complex ways. Therefore our collaboration instinct is not simply an add-on but the core of our being.
Collaboration is the result of an evolution – a special kind of evolution driven by the search for purpose in our work endeavours. The importance of this shift cannot and should not be underestimated. In a time when the vast majority of workers in the developing world are experiencing levels of disengagement so high (akin to times of feudal systems or slavery) it would not be too much of a stretch to suggest that business managers are failing their employees. Businesses cannot realistically hope to last and thrive unless the people who create the value have their intangible needs met as well. The modern worker does not work to put the food on the table or for shelter alone. They work to get many other needs met as well. Good pay is part of the story but not nearly compelling enough to make a business resilient. Employers must also provide capacity for the modern worker to finish their day with the satisfaction of a job well done, an appropriate pay-cheque, and a sense of confidence that their workplace is a place where they belong and can be fully actualised as individuals.
So we come to the role of collaboration in this big picture. As a recent report on collaboration in Australia stated, if business managers responded to employee interests in collaboration, we would be richer by almost $AU10 billion. This is consistent with similar studies in other parts of the world. Worryingly, we presently have falling productivity levels (for almost a decade now in the Australian economy specifically) and our innovation levels are almost in free fall. This begs the question; Have we have sufficiently educated and trained a willing cadre of business leaders to engage with this challenge? We need to pay closer attention to the fact that we have people who want to collaborate. Collaboration is crucial for innovation and is a known factor for improved productivity. So if ever there was a time for collaboration to unlock potential; this is it. Enabling employees to collaborate can add significant benefits, including better engagement, more job satisfaction, increased resilience, enhanced innovation and improved productivity.
These are not hypotheticals. Tangible benefits have been already realised by many organisations across the world. Collectively these factors can tap into another defining feature of human beings; that of meaning-makers and creatures who relentlessly seek sense and purpose in everything, including work. Cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker, who himself was a bit of an outlier with his ideas, called humans the Homo poetica – “man the meaning maker”. Collaboration at work is a recognised path to meaning and purpose building. When employees collaborate they also help each other to find that purpose and meaning – a strategy that is as old as humankind. Now, share the news.