The Word of Zara...
September 2005
Last month, I attended a seminar hosted by UQAM and given by Olivier Zara who spoke about collective intelligence. Recently, we’ve been hearing a fair amount about collective intelligence and this poked my curiosity. Why has this concept become so trendy all of a sudden? What more can be said about collective intelligence? Will the meaning be changed? In my opinion, collective intelligence refers to cooperation. Of course! Claude Béland, former president of Desjardins, often said that “To cooperate is to be intelligent as a group”. In this matter, I consider this my frame of reference; however, let me state for the record that I’m not narrow-minded. I understand that the cooperative movement doesn’t have a monopoly on collective intelligence. So I attended this seminar with an open mind and was ready to learn more on this subject.

If we’re interested in collective intelligence at this point in time, and if I understand this correctly, it’s because we’ve entered a knowledge economy. Not so long ago, we were in a production-based economy, and competition depended on infrastructures, hard work and capital. The incredible growth of communication and information technologies suddenly propelled us toward the knowledge economy where, within this new paradigm, the key to success has taken on a very different form. Today, value is created through innovation and ideas, conceived and produced by the mind. Consequently, to improve performance and competitiveness, companies must be able to mobilize collective intelligence and use it in their development. The seminar, quite interesting as a matter of fact, dealt with a technological tool designed to help managers channel a work team’s knowledge and intelligence. As you all know, I’m somewhat biased, and I took everything I could from this seminar that could directly be applied to the cooperative movement, and I intend this information with you.

First, let’s see what the cooperative exercise requires from an individual. According to Zara, to fully cooperate, not only must a person be willing to help, but he or she must also accept to ask for help. Elementary, don’t you think?

A person who helps but never requires assistance is more of a benefactor than a cooperator. Elementary perhaps, but it bears repeating. Although most people are willing to help spontaneously, asking for help requires a certain degree of humility that doesn’t necessarily comes easy.

Then, Zara presented a clear picture of how the cooperative process emerged, a process that consists of three critical conditions: “the will, the know-how and the ability to cooperate”. For Zara, the “will to cooperate” means the readiness to sign a contract, the desire to readily become involved and honour a partnership. By trying to find how this condition could be applied to our network, I asked myself if contracts with our member cooperatives were significant and mobilizing enough to instil the desire and the will to cooperate in interested parties. I still wonder. As for “cooperation know-how”, this brings us back to cooperative training. It is undeniably a necessity; we need to make people understand what needs to be done to contribute to a cooperative project. In this respect, our network fares very well, our investments in training are quite generous. As for the “ability to cooperate”, this refers to the implements that facilitate cooperation, and for Zara, that refers to information technology. Today, information technology does provide us with extraordinary opportunities to establish new means of solidarity and cooperation. And I’ve noticed that our agricultural cooperative network is behind the times in this respect. Many of us still don’t use the technology and those among us who do; quite a few remain Internet ignorant. In other sectors of activity, these people are judged to be modern illiterates. Let’s hope the next generation of agricultural producers will push us to do better.

And finally, Zara acknowledges that all groups have their share of “moochers”: people who don’t contribute yet take advantage of the fact that others do. This phenomena is well-known throughout the cooperative world, it’s referred to as the “free rider” problem. I’ve asked Zara how he proposed to deal with “free riders”. His response was filled with wisdom: “We need to make them work and exploit their talents to find the system’s loopholes”.

For our own network, I guess this would mean that we should put these “moochers” to work by setting up communication means that will allow us to determine their complaints… or our weaknesses. I exited the conference room pleased with the knowledge that once again cooperation, in all its forms, remains an endless source of knowledge.

Colette Lebel, agr.
Director of Cooperative Affairs
La Coop fédérée
Fax: (514) 858-2025


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