The ‘last mile’ challenges sellers of products and services in rural India. Customers are widely dispersed, infrastructure to reach them is inadequate, and therefore profits are elusive. A way out for businesses, explained in CII’s report on ‘Winning by Inclusion’, is to combine capabilities and share infrastructure in the last mile thus reducing investments and costs. The World Bank, too, has examined delivery of public services for education, healthcare and sanitation to the poor in rural as well as urban India. It contrasts examples of effective and low-cost delivery with the myriad examples of wasteful and often useless schemes. It points out that successful projects generally have two characteristics. They involve the local community in planning and managing the service. And very often, they are collaborative ventures between government, NGOs, businesses and the community. The lesson for those who want to do good and also for those who want to make profits is that going it alone is costly and ineffective.
While successful examples provide valuable insights, they are too few and far between. The challenge is to spread the models and scale up benefits. The default solution almost always is to impose an overall authority and enforce ideas top down. Thus an insight from successful examples is smothered — collaboration on the ground between many agencies working together as partners produces results, not a single agency acting on its own. Why then do we instinctively revert to a ‘dominator’ model of organisation to get something done, even in the face of economic logic and empirical evidence that suggests we need partnerships?
Social scientist Riane Eisler gives an intriguing explanation. In her analysis of the evolution of culture and ideas over 10,000 years of human history, she points out that two opposing ideas of social organisation have contended with each other at various times. One is the idea of partnerships and equality, principally among the two sexes. Whenever this model has prevailed, there has been greater peace and an effervescence of creativity. The other idea, more prevalent, is domination by hierarchies with a single leader, invariably male, at the top. The dominator model, she explains, is intolerant of opposition. It is also very effective for the organization of war. Dominant organizations use the power of the word (propagating their own ideas and banning opposing ideas as heresies) as well as, in the extreme, the power of the sword (of violent punishment) to prevail. The partnership model is always a threat to those in power because it brings others up to their level to share the power that they have so far enjoyed.
Eisler concentrates on western civilisation, in which she tracks these aggressive forces in the growth of the Christian church, ostensibly founded to propagate the ideas of a man who brought the message of love, compassion, and of ‘turning the other cheek’. However, the dominator model, of top-down authority intolerant of opposition, is also evident in many eastern societies and in international relations. This model produces results, but not in all contexts. When problems are systemic, when there are many interacting forces with reinforcing and balancing effects amongst them, when many actors must collaborate to understand the system of which they are all a part and cooperate in its improvement, partnerships are necessary. The dominator model could win the battle against Saddam, but it cannot impose peace in Iraq.
In an increasingly interconnected world with several challenges, such as saving the environment, reducing poverty and eradicating violence, cooperation is necessary across national boundaries. Collaboration is also required locally, within countries, to produce results on the ground. However, the tool-kits of leaders and managers are not equipped for these challenges. Concepts of organisation and management taught in government, army and business schools teach managers how to be more effective within the dominator model. The emphasis is on teaching strategies and skills for competition and control, rather than strategies and skills for collaboration and co-creation. No wonder Alexander the Great’s Art of Strategy and Sun Tzu’s Art of War are management bestsellers.
We cannot carry on in this way. We need a new curriculum of leadership and management with new concepts and texts. What this will require is eloquently explained by Dee Hock, the founder of Visa — the credit card network that revolutionized financial services in the 1960s. Technology was an enabler for Visa’s success, but the breakthrough, Hock says, was in the governance model of an enterprise without a single owner that requires hundreds of banks and millions of merchants all over the world to cooperate to maintain its integrity.
Reflecting on the state of the world today, Hock says that our intractable societal problems are caused by an institutional failure: “At the bottom, it is a wrong concept of organisation and leadership based on a false metaphor with which we must deal. Until we do, the problems that crush the young and make grown people cry will grow progressively worse”. The false metaphor is domination and top-down control, whereas the new dawn will come with partnerships, even amongst those considered unequal — rich and poor people, backward and developed nations, men and women.
The writer is with the Boston Consulting Group.
Power Of Two
In business, collaboration makes better sense