Bridging the Gap

By Anand Kurian

In this paper, Anand Kurian creates the management term 'Co-omperation' and develops and explains the concept.

It was published in the November 2010 issue of 'Indian Management', the Journal of the All-India Management Association (AIMA), published by the Business Standard. 

The problem with management education today is the dichotomy, the great divide between theory and practice. I cannot imagine a branch where theory and practice are so divorced from one another. Perhaps the profession where both are best melded is medicine where students practice their craft regularly at the hospital before they are absorbed into the profession and where they are taught by professors who are themselves active professionals – most medical colleges are part of a hospital complex, which makes all of this possible.

It would be wonderful if this were so in management, it would be quite delightful. As Ivan Arthur, former National Creative Director of JWT India, put it, the earth and sky would then meet as one.

The dichotomy between management in practice and management education arises in part from the gap between abstract theory and practice. One of the flaws of the education system, as we have it today, is that it teaches in abstracts that are, for want of a better word, solid and absolute. It seldom allows for greys. (And I think that this attitude prevails from the days that we are in junior kindergarten to the years that we spend in a college learning business management.)

Nowhere is this more apparent than in our approach to the twin concepts of cooperation and competition. Let’s take a look at these, as they exist in our textbooks (and therefore in our mindsets) today.

‘Co-operation is the process of working or acting together, which can be accomplished by both intentional and non-intentional agents. In its simplest form it involves things working in harmony, side by side, while in its more complicated forms, it can involve something as complex as the inner workings of a human being or even the social patterns of a nation.’

‘It is the alternative to working separately in competition.’

‘Competition is a contest between individuals, groups, nations, animals, etc. for territory, a niche, or a location of resources. It arises whenever two or more parties strive for a goal which cannot be shared. Competition occurs naturally between living organisms which co-exist in the same environment. For example, animals compete over water supplies, food, and mates, etc. Humans compete for water, food, and mates, though when these needs are met deep rivalries often arise over the pursuit of wealth, prestige, and fame. Business is often associated with competition as most companies are in competition with at least one other firm over the same group of customers.’


Notice that cooperation and competition are seen as alternatives to each other. The concept of Co-omperation’ that I have developed, on the other hand, does not see the two as an antithesis to each other. Co-omperation is rather the synthesis of competition and cooperation (hence the name that I have given it), and I maintain that this is closer to the natural order of relationships between individuals.

It is, first of all, in consonance with the hardware that we are born with. As anthropology teaches us, our bodies are built to love as well as to fight; everything about our physical structure prepares us to befriend as well as to compete. The story continues to the software that resides within, the programming that is at work inside all of us. Our thoughts, feelings and desires, our mental and psychological makeup are configured for co-omperation. And anthropologists have discovered that, in this respect, tribes in isolated pockets of the world as well the tribe working in the glass and concrete jungle of Manhattan behave in similar fashion.

If we see the co-existence of cooperation and competition within the same relationship as contradictory, it is our mindset that is in error. We need to correct this in order to perceive that co-omperation is the norm rather than the exception; it is the most natural transaction for homo sapiens.

Child, Parent, Adult

Let’s take the most basic of human units that has prevailed from time immemorial: the family.  Now, the family has been the base, the core and the foundation of nearly all human societies. And of all human associations, it is the one most characterized by love, caring and sharing. No other institution can quite compare with it in this regard.  

Yet think back to your own childhood; you loved your brother, of course, but you remember, don’t you, that you fought with him over the lone football that both of you wanted. You wrestled with him and pummelled him, punched him and pinned him down to the ground and wrested the ball from him.

Now, think about parents; in most marriages today, both spouses work and though,  they may love each other, there is the subtle and not-so-subtle jockeying that even loving couples constantly do – who is working harder at running the house,  who does more for the family and the kids… Why, as Shah Rukh Khan joked, you even compete with your spouse for the affection of your own children!

Your extended family is no better. Even in the saccharine-sweet world of Sooraj Barjatiya, where everybody is all smiles perpetually, even in this Garden of Eden, Barjatiya is honest enough to admit that there are those who do not always wish each other well. The Mahabharat, of course, is an extreme example of this – most cousins are something in-between!

Now, think about your friends – first, your school friends. You were best friends with Manohar and he probably fought beside you against some tough bullies when they ganged up against you. And even today, many years later, you still remember that. But you competed for a place in the same school football team and probably, when you were both adolescents, competed for that cute girl with the pigtails, who sat two rows ahead of you in the classroom. You would both jockey for an opportunity to talk to her. You competed for other things too – that place in the debating team maybe – and you competed pretty fiercely. And it was not all hunky dory either; sometimes the friendship would be strained to breaking point and would even erupt into a fight, but come time and things would be back on track.

And what about your extended circle of friends in school? I think it was the character Phoebe Buffey in ‘Friends’ who said that the politics, the peer pressure and the groupism that she faced in school was worse than anything she experienced in life afterword. This may have been an exaggerated and extreme reaction but it is during childhood that you learn that you will get together with your sworn enemies sometimes and that you will, at times, fight your friends.  

Behind the corporate veil

Now let’s think of corporations that are going head to head against each other – think the cola wars (Coca Cola vs. Pepsi) or the long-running detergent feuds (Surf vs. Ariel) or the conflicts in the particular sphere of industry that you work in. Now, when you are up against a giant opponent and you think of it as a monolithic entity, then it seems invincible. But that is not really the case, is it?

Any corporation is made up of hundreds of individuals; many of those individuals are competing against each other for the same prize – the next promotion, the corner office that is up for grabs soon, and so on. Some of those individuals are banded together into groups and quite a few of those groups are battling against each other. When you think of it that way, the monolithic corporation that you are up against no longer seems quite as invincible and you are ready to exploit that weakness.

And companies, while they compete against each other fiercely, have to band together when their interests are threatened. The airline companies battle furiously against each other at all times for their space in the sky. Telecom battles are the stuff that mega corporate feuds in textbooks are made of. Yet, come issues that affect them as one, and they get together and make common cause – usually in India, they make common cause against the government.

Can an iron discipline crush out the rivalry and the politics within a corporation? No, it cannot. Let’s look at the most disciplined of ‘corporations’ that we have in the world – the army. Witness the recent rumblings within the American war establishment, the open grouses expressed by the Afghanistan war commander, General Stanley McChrystal. And such conflict and confrontation is not new within the army; here is an excerpt from a letter written by US President Lincoln to his general, during the American civil war, this was written way back in the nineteenth century:

‘You are ambitious, which, within reasonable bounds, does good rather than harm; but I think that during General Burnside's command of the army you have taken counsel of your ambition, and thwarted him as much as you could, in which you did a great wrong to the country and to a most meritorious and honourable brother officer.’

Of Politics and Diplomacy

So not even a ‘corporation’ that believes in an iron discipline can stamp out competition within its ranks. In the complicated bureaucratic systems within the government machinery, the bickering, of course, is even more intense. In India, we have seen the foreign ministry clash with the home ministry, as each one defended its turf, accusing the other of poaching on it. During recent talks between the two countries, the Pakistani government took full advantage, playing the two ministries off against each other until the two had to make concerted attempts to make peace, as this news item shows:

‘Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao called on Home Secretary Pillai to bridge the divide between the two ministries. Thursday's meeting took place at Pillai's North Block office on Raisina Hill long after the television crews outside had melted away. "I can only confirm there was a meeting,” a government functionary said. Pillai and Rao are understood to have discussed his remarks on David Headley's probe report a day earlier and the controversy. "I think the meeting would have cleared the air," a source later said.”’

Note that, in the above news item, we are talking of two ministries within the government making peace, not India & Pakistan.

So we must learn not to see cooperation and competition as an antithesis of each other – but as complementary. The ground reality is that the two go hand in hand; every relationship we will experience in our lives will be rooted in both.

Look at the relations between nations and how international diplomacy works. It works best when the countries involved accept that they will indeed act in their own self-interest but they share the hope that such self-interest will be mutual. The best diplomats are those who recognize that their countries will compete for trade with other countries, for political power in the world, (for a permanent seat in the UN Security Council, for instance) but they see that even while they compete for these and other things, both countries’ best interests will be served if they co-operate in all areas where their mutual interests coincide –  trade, cultural exchanges, sports, and so on – in short, they accept that co-omperation is the best relationship possible between countries. 

Can Indo-Pak relations improve, applying the concept of co-omperation? I think it can and will; one could go further and say that relations can only improve once both parties, including the people from both countries, accept it. Unrealistic expectations are put aside and tangible, realistic benefits that will accrue to both become the cornerstone of the relationship. Co-omperation is an acceptance of realpolitik – it is a decision made more by the head rather than the heart. It is dictated by logic, reason and mutual self-interest than rigid doctrines and ideologies.  

The great leaders – in business, in politics, in every field of human activity – have been great practitioners of co-omperation.Though they practiced it, of course, quite unconsciously, they were the first co-omperators. Today, however, we can apply it in a planned and deliberate way, to different fields of human endeavour. The benefits can be more than expected and manifold; it is time, now, to learn to co-omperate…

(Anand Kurian is a marketing and communications professional. Along with two former deans of the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, he has developed a new subject 'The Culture of Business' for management students. This article is adapted from lectures at the IIMs, at CEO forums and to members of the Indian Administrative Service.)