The term coopetition has actually been around for quite some time, as strange as it may seem. Going back to at least the 1930s, the word was coined to capture the idea that those who we compete against are in fact our partners in developing technologies and processes. We may fight fiercely to protect our trade secrets and to differentiate ourselves from our competitors, but we all gain from new developments. Think Microsoft and Apple—the mouse, windows, directory systems, tablets, product design—both benefit from “stealing” from the other.
However, the idea of coopetition is just now having—or about to have—its moment in the world of knowledge management, workplace learning, organizational dynamism and professional development. In our connected, networked, decentralized world, the very notion of X vs. Y, Us vs. Them, Me vs. You is falling away. Whether we think this is good or bad is irrelevant—it simply is. (I happen to think it’s wonderful.)
Manuel Lima has a really interesting take on how the interconnected, leaderless network is expressed in the shift in visualizations from the paradigm of trees and hierarchies to meshes of interconnectivity: from the “Tree of Life” to the “Network of Life.” If you have 12 minutes, check it out:
The point is that we are not insulated in our working groups, departments, organizations or the few professional colleagues who we happen to meet at annual conferences. We should seek out peers, experts and diverse members of our networks throughout our industry and across the globe. A widget manufacturer, a financial consultant or an electrician can and should learn as much from “competing” organizations as from the coworkers they see every day. We should constantly forage for innovations, learning and insights—the essence of modern work—across our networks. This is especially true of our supposed competitors.
We all improve together when we cooperate through open sharing and knowledge transfer. Coopetition requires a new mindset for our organizations. Individual workers are transitory, taking their expertise with them from workplace to workplace. Institutional memory becomes less important than mining the networks for functional knowledge that may or may not exist within the walls of a particular company.
The rising tide of shared knowledge and strengthening networks through coopetition really does raise all in our flotilla of ideas.
The lesson: Learn through the diversity of our competitors. In my next post I’ll share some ways to achieve that openness to learning that builds coopetition.