Harvard Professor Yochai Benkler -- Cooperation Trumps Self-Interest -- Levi Shapiro

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Harvard Professor Yochai Benkler has a radical premise: cooperation triumphs over self-interest. In a lecture this month in Tel Aviv, he called for cooperation and community as a tool to fundamentally transform business. “In today’s knowledge economy, the most valuable resources -- information and knowledge -- are a public good, and the best way to develop and maximize this good is through millions of networked people pooling that knowledge and working together to create new products, ideas and solutions,” he said.

Benkler cited the model of Free Open Source Software (FOSS), which now accounts for more than 40% of all software (Lerner and Schankerman). Community-based models like Wikipedia and Linux have inspired new organizational models driven by the assumption that, given the right conditions, people will cooperate and collaborate to serve the collective good. Perhaps it is time that companies, and even governments, innovate through positive rewards rather than traditional financial incentives, punishment or top-down hierarchy.

The concept is covered extensively in Benkler’s 2011 book, “The Penguin and the Leviathan.” “The promise of cooperation is not some silly utopian dream. It is grounded in some of the best work and most rigorous research in behavioral science.” For example, anthropologists Rob Boyd and Pete Richerson found that societies and cultures that encourage cooperative practices are more successful, especially during periods of transition. Within behavioral psychology research studies, typically a significant minority (~ 30%) will behave selfishly. However, 50% of all people behave cooperatively. This means the social and economic systems currently in place at most large organizations do not accurately reflect human behavior. Benkler favors systems, including contests, hackathons and recognition programs that encourage engagement, communication and common purpose. “We should look to ways we can harness cooperation and collaboration to improve the systems we inhabit, rather than stubbornly cling to impoverished descriptions of those systems,” he says.


Benkler recommends competitions and prizes as a means to leverage technical infrastructure and innovate beyond the boundaries of the firm. The community-based Hackathon movement, in which rewards are oriented toward community benefit, is booming. According to Singly, an API management company, there were 1170 hackathons worldwide last year, or 22 per week. Now the Big Guys want a piece of the action. M&A in the past several months includes Singly (Appcelerator), Mashery (purchased by Intel for $180 million), Layer 7, Mulesoft acquired Programmable Web (Mulesoft), Parse (Facebook) and Apiphany (Microsoft).

“If we wish to build a society, an organization, or a technical system in which individuals cooperate, we need to build those systems to account for all those motivations, and for the complex interactions among them.”



Levi Shapiro is a Partner at TMT Strategic Advisors, a research and strategy firm focusing on the technology, media and telecom sectors. He can be reached at levi@tmtstrat.com or via twitter: @levshapiro

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