Collaborative Community

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Typology of Collaborative Community within the firm

Paul S. Adler and Charles Heckscher:

"Neither the traditional nor modern forms of community are adequate for groups that seek high levels of adaptiveness and complex interdependence. In such situations trust is particularly important, because people depend a great deal on others whose skills and expertise they cannot check; autonomy and ‘rugged individualism’ give way to an increasingly dense web of interdependence, and there is a growing need for stable cooperative relations among highly differentiated actors. But in such situations trust is also particularly difficult to achieve, because it can no longer be based on tradition or on personal acquaintance and experience. 16 We believe that close scrutiny of contemporary firms reveals the emergence of a new type of community that can square this circle. Collaborative community forms when people work together to create shared value. This increasingly characterizes societies in which the generation of knowledge, often involving many specialists, has become central to economic production. In this it is fundamentally unlike the two forms we have described above: the traditional, where values are assumed to be eternally embodied in the existing community, without the need for shared ‘work’ to achieve them; and the modern, where values are removed from the public realm and left to individuals, with community being merely a place where individuals can pursue their own ends by participating in a shared game. In a collaborative community, values are not individual beliefs, but the object of shared activity; they have to be discussed and understood in similar ways by everyone. The basis of trust is the degree to which members of the community believe that others have contributions to make towards this shared creation.17 Adler’s chapter invokes this idea under the label ‘object’: a collaborative community emerges when a collectivity engages cooperative, interdependent activity towards a common object.

The institutions of collaborative community are centered on defining the core purposes and regulating interactions so that the right people can contribute at the right time to advance the process of value-creation. In a dynamic environment purpose must be distinguished from eternal ‘values,’ which are timeless statements of what the group is. Purpose is a relatively pragmatic view of what the group is trying to achieve, given the environmental challenges, in the foreseeable future. Agreement on purpose or strategy is crucial: members of the community need to both understand it in depth and be committed to its achievement. This means that rather than being left to a small cadre of leaders, the purpose must become a matter for widespread discussion. One can see this result clearly in corporations: in the last few decades strategy has often moved from a confidential preserve of top management to a key desideratum for all employees.

When value and purpose are discussed, they may also be contested. This is possibly the most difficult aspect of the difficult move to collaboration: finding ways to debate core orientations while still working together. Whereas in the Gesellschaft community working together is a more or less accidental by-product of an interplay of individual interests— coordination achieved by an invisible hand of the market or by a nexus of employment contracts—in the collaborative community it involves a deliberate and deliberated commitment to shared ends. But deliberation at this level is hard to manage. Even in voluntary organizations, it can easily slide into polarization or factionalism which shuts off discussion.

Moreover, in the capitalist firm, there are deep structural challenges to collaborative community. First, the power asymmetry between managers and employees generates anxiety, deference, and resentment. Second, the external goals of the firm are deeply contradictory—to produce useful products and services (‘use-value’ in the parlance of classical political economy) and to create monetary profit (‘exchange-value’). In capitalist firms, collective purpose is therefore contradictory in its very nature. Nevertheless, there has been a slow elaboration of mechanisms for deliberation—forums in which employees are invited to ‘push back’ against their superiors, and where the contradictory nature of the firms’ goals is acknowledged and confronted."


Source: Paul S. Adler and Charles Heckscher. Towards Collaborative Community / (Book: The Corporation as a Collaborative Community)


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