The Collective Workplace

Now you might wonder what 1927, communism and progressivism have to do with learning and my answer is: collectivity.

“No individual ever built a skyscraper.” – American Economic Life

It’s July 1927 and the average unemployment in the United States is 3.3 percent, and the Dow Jones Industrial Average is 168. It’s the age of Soviet Russia and Josef Stalin. And while progressive intellectuals are a minority in the U.S., there is a strong contingent of those who are looking for answers to the country’s problems — some of whom see potential solutions in the unthinkable, Soviet Russia.!@!

This is the setting of chapter two in The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression by Amity Shlaes.

Now you might wonder what 1927, communism and progressivism have to do with learning in 2008 and my answer is: collectivity. We talk a lot about collaboration, but let’s talk about being a collective whole.

In an economics textbook produced in 1925 called American Economic Life, there is a photo of a skyscraper with this caption: “Collective effort built this; the inference is inescapable; but we sometimes attempt to avoid the logical further inference that more collective effort is needed.”

We need more collectivity in the workplace, especially if we want unrestricted, or informal, learning to happen. If organizations succeed in this, then they will be able to build metaphorical skyscrapers.

Like Carleton Washburne of the Winnetka school system believed in the 1920s, competition among students is wrong.

The same should be true of the workplace. Granted, it’s a different dynamic, as employees compete against each other for higher rank, pay and prestige. But when does competition cross the line and become nonproductive? And how can learning thrive in a cutthroat environment?

What does your organization do to diffuse the competitive spirit and promote true collectivity? What’s the balance between competitiveness and collectivity at your organization?