To be competitive is to be cooperative

The terms “Knowledge Worker” and “Knowledge Society” are around fifty five years old. Peter Drucker and Fritz Machlup, a less known Princeton economist, coined them at roughly the same time around 1960.

Although the concepts have now been around for a long time, it seems that the implications for individuals and societies are not clear yet. What is quite evident is that the emerging society is different in many ways from the industrial society. We know very little about the knowledge worker and the knowledge society, but there are some things we do know about knowledge work.

Knowledge work is creative work we do in interaction.

Effective skills are always specialized, as regards to both successful companies and effective people. This means that highly knowledge-based companies and people are always, by definition, only a partial answer to the opportunities available. Michael Porter made us to think that the players in the game of business were (1) companies, (2) customers and (3) suppliers together with old and new (4) competitors coming with alternative (5) offerings. This was called the five competitive forces model. The company was seen as an independent, self-contained unit of competition.

Today, there is a sixth competitive force emerging.

Bill Gates had a pet project about 13 years ago that was going to change computing for millions of people. It was the touch screen tablet PC. The device never raised a fraction of the interest that the iPad has generated. Was it because at the time, Microsoft did the project alone?

Because of specialized, narrow skill sets, a new role with a new role definition is needed in knowledge work. Nobody can be successful without supporting contributions from network partners. The new role is a “complementor”. A complement to an offering is another offering that makes it more attractive.

A complementor is not the same as a supplier. The connection is based on a non-hierarchic network relation, not the value chain. The most classic example of complements is computer hardware and computer software. The greatest hardware engineers are in dire straits without the greatest software programmers, as Nokia found out. Though the idea of complements is most apparent in ICT, the principle is universal: you can never have (in-house) all the specialized skills you need. What would the smart devices be without the applications made by “third parties”. The same applies to people. What would Steve have been without Woz? The strategic question for every knowledge worker is who is the person that complements you?

Barry Nalebuff explains the sixth competitive force he coined in a very academic way: “People value hot dogs more when they have mustard. Because knowledge work is specialized, it never pays to try to make both.” Complementary contributions may be the most important explanation of business and personal success today. The new strategic imperative and one of the very first entrepreneurial tasks is to identify complementors and to be inviting to them.

The Internet first enabled more efficient communication and commerce. It now makes coordination possible in ways that we have never seen before. Complementarity is not about recombining skills but redefining work. To be competitive in the new landscape is to be cooperative.