Op-Ed:

A Tale of Two Synergies

Looking Backward and Moving Forward

A management system can help to develop a company’s social structure by impacting staff, social groups and coordinating dynamics of working groups. A well-managed synergy approach can be integrated to increase employee motivation, wellness – and results.

How to Get Better Results?

This enigma has challenged leaders, managers, workers and in fact all people since the dawn of humanity.

The struggle is not limited to humans: all living organisms compete for limited resources. Variations arise constantly. Advantages over competitors increase chances to survive and thrive.

Now the bad news: evolution is dynamic. Environments and ecosystems change constantly. New competitors and innovations emerge and exert ongoing competition for resources. There is no permanent winner. Yesterday’s big winners, such as dinosaurs, can often no longer compete; they become tomorrow’s losers.

In nature such pressures play out over millions of years, but in modern times they are undeniably accelerating in quantity, speed and volatility.

We cannot succeed simply by doing more of what we did in the past but faster. Earlier human societies kept warm by cutting down trees and burning wood. In the future, that will be almost unthinkable. In fact, we aim to do precisely the opposite, to preserve and plant trees. Looking forward we aim to steward the planet and limited resources in more responsible sustainable ways.

Global demographics and geopolitical dynamics are changing how and where we access resources. We feel pressure to secure resources from innovative sources. For example, demand for resources on Earth has become so intense that firms are investing in space exploration to find elements crucial to modern life 1. Simpler, older, relatively linear processes to get resources are being replaced by interdependent networks, huge amounts of complex data and machine-based artificial intelligence.

Managers grasp this. But in addition to visions of new landscapes, managers need specific pragmatic inputs on how to implement concepts, essentially how-to guides for their business practices. We require new roadmaps.

In their recent book, Good Economics for Hard Times, MIT economists and Nobel Prize winners Abhijit V. Banerjee and Esther Duflo make a case for intelligent interventionism and society built on compassion and respect 'in our precariously balanced world,' 2 to quote the World Bank. In a project I worked on with them, I asked why organizations don’t simply apply good practices. Banerjee responded, 'They cost too much.' 3. To escape the cost trap, we must find ways to use available resources, but get better results.

Synergy to the Rescue (Again)

Beyond any doubt, one option should be self-evident: do not obsess over old solutions. Do not expect that doing more of the same will work. We must focus on identifying ways to achieve better results.

More intelligent use of synergy – putting things together into value-adding new combinations – is one means toward that end.

Synergy is as old as the sun. In fact, sunlight itself provides a brilliant illustration of synergy. The sun consists mainly of hydrogen, which is the simplest, lightest and most abundant element in the universe. The sun’s gravity causes a fusion reaction that generates sunlight and heat, which then travel for eight minutes across 150 million kilometers of space to provide the most important source of energy for all life on planet Earth

Every plant, animal and living person owes their existence to this synergy. Make no mistake: synergy is a fact. It has profound importance and value.

Ancient cultures were attuned to synergy. The word derives from the ancient Greek synergia 4, or 'working together.' It is possible that other and even older cultures had their own words for and conceptions of it. Regardless, we know that humans have been creating synergies for a long time.

It is not unusual to hear someone claim something is 'the greatest invention since the wheel.' Back in pre-history, humans dragged things from one location to another. But at least 6,000 years ago, a person had the idea to combine a circular material with an axle. This synergy created the wheel, which led to quantum leaps in effectiveness and efficiency. Many other synergies have shaped civilization and will continue to do so moving forward.

Social Synergy

Social synergy is becoming one of the most profound new forces in our lives. A few robust facts support this inevitability.

First, digital social platforms are not only a defining aspect of how we communicate and interact, but increasingly form the defining, dominant and determinant foundations of who we are. Facebook was founded in 2003. As of December 31, 2020, Facebook reported on average 1.84 billion daily active users for the month, an increase of 11% year-over-year 5. If Facebook were a country, it would currently have the largest population on earth.

Second, we are seeing the accelerated implementation of the Internet of Things (IoT), where our lives intersect with sensors, software and other technologies to connect and exchange data over networks with other devices and systems. IoT is increasingly connecting each of us in digital feedback loops, an interconnective social synergy fabric.

Consider: in the recent past we were advised to get regular exercise. Today, an increasing number of people wear activity trackers and smartwatches that measure data such as steps walked, heart rate, quality of sleep, vital signs and other metrics. Those data then interact with collective centralized information systems. Yesterday’s individual exercise evolved into today’s linked social wellness processes, which in turn are becoming tomorrow’s synergy healthcare solutions.

The Apple Watch illustrates such rapidly evolving social synergy digital transitions 6.

In addition to telling time, it is a mobile social synergy device. It democratizes personal training so people can easily access trainers. It is a guardian of health constantly monitoring a user’s heart, able to do an ECG at a moment's notice.

People are remotely wiring data inputs into mass data sets with clinical precision. This provides potential for advances in socially driven health knowledge. In the past, most people would have never had an ECG, especially during a pandemic. A scientific researcher would have been lucky to get 10 to 20 participants in a health study. Today, an Apple Watch project is using data from 400,000 users. Many people wish to help other people, and wearing a device has become a low-threshold way to be part of something social that is helping humanity.

A third driver of social synergy is the increasing transparency and speed of information sharing. Figuratively, everyone today is connected. In the past, a few individuals or institutions managed information. Today, social groups know more, and almost instantaneously. This leads to more experiences arising and playing out in social contexts.

Artificial intelligence and algorithms also drive social synergy. They accelerate the ongoing competitive process of identifying and integrating relevant factors in systems, ideally improving competitive advantage.

These drivers and other factors point to social synergy as a potent new source of value creation. A self-evident way to harness their efficiency is to develop social synergy solutions that can scale in groups, communities and networks. But how?

How to Integrate Social Synergy Approaches into Management Systems

It is logical to integrate social synergy approaches into management systems. Solution providers are offering off-the-shelf packages and services that integrate management systems and social activity, ranging from simple to sophisticated. Gartner’s Top 10 Trends in Data and Analytics for 2020 coined the term 'X analytics' to describe this trend focusing on adding value by combining structured and unstructured content, including social, text, video, audio and other sources 7.

It does not need to be a large effort, though. It can easily begin with simple, pragmatic steps. For example, an organization can increase social synergy by enabling collaboration platforms where employees can interact socially across business units or in larger contexts.

The past year’s Covid-19 pandemic has compelled massive rethinking of how and where we work. Stakeholders could not work as usual; organizations dedicated attention and resources to employee wellness, family wellness, mental health and other considerations, such as flex-work. Intriguingly, many organizations have already stated that even after the Covid-19 pandemic is resolved, they intend to maintain flex-work options in relation to wellness benefits. Clearly investment in wellness has many organizational upsides; it is not just a cost. It can promote desired outcomes. It can resonate positively with brand and sector. It can reflect well on corporate citizenship.

Employee benefits tend to be relatively standardized and transparent in their respective sectors. Well established web platforms like Glassdoor document and score companies on benefits 8. Currently popular benefits include things like vacation time; wellness facilities and support; corporate-branded swag; insurance; clubs; flextime; work at home options; daycare; housing support; parental and caregiver leave; technology and community discounts; fitness classes; learning stipends and more. Standardization and transparency provide good data to objectively map benefits to management systems.

Like any system, it requires planning and effort. Many managers use common decision-support tools, such as Pareto charts, to map process options like individual key performance indicators to outcomes. Common methods like this can map benefits to social synergies. Relevant metrics can help to optimize allocation of resources to improve returns on investment.

Taking a Step Backward to Get Perspective and Learn

In addition to upsides, we must be mindful of downsides. Michael Goold and Andrew Campbell published a prescient article in Harvard Business Review in 1998 entitled ‘Desperately Seeking Synergy’ 9. They wrote, ‘When synergy is well managed, it can be a boon, creating additional value with existing resources. But when it’s poorly managed, it can undermine an organization’s confidence and erode the trust among business units as well as between the units and the corporate center. Synergy’s upsides are real, but so are its downsides.'

Unfortunately, some projects in past decades were poorly managed. Forbes 10, MSN 11 and other media sources could not resist reporting the results of a 2019 study by GetResponse of over a thousand employees across different ages, industries and locations that found Synergy to be America’s most hated buzzword 12. Many managers used the term 'synergy' and talked the talk, but couldn’t walk the walk.

It’s critical to be realistic: some managers created spreadsheets that promised synergy, but failed to deliver. The frequent cause is that spreadsheets alone do not deliver results. Bringing together peoples of different backgrounds, needs, skills and cultures requires attention to people to achieve results. As management consultant Peter Drucker is quoted as saying, ‘Culture eats strategy for breakfast.’

Many synergies as promised on spreadsheets failed to materialize because employees were not properly motivated by management. But in all fairness, this was not entirely the fault of managers. Older eco-systems were not always well equipped to support managers. In the past, managers were often under pressure to develop unrealistically complex projects, commit resources and deliver results. Communication and systems to stay on track were often not sufficient. Projects often failed. Looking backward it is understandable some feel cynical. But we do not live in yesterday’s world. Moving forward, we live in the realities of emerging new ecosystems.

Moving Forward: Managers as Part of New Synergy Solutions

This highlights a related transformation: managers and ecosystems are evolving. Teamwork skills are increasingly important. Many organizations are exploring new collaboration tools and methodologies to work closer together in more progressive, humane and realistic ways. Methodologies like Agile emphasize incremental approaches, adaptive planning, evolutionary development and continuous improvement, as well as promoting cultural awareness and empathy. Such technological and cultural transitions are forming new work ecosystems. Many past downsides that caused synergy to fail are being mitigated. Many new upsides facilitating synergy benefits are becoming more likely. A vital part of this forward-looking success will be to ensure that management systems are appropriately integrated with synergy approaches.

Picture of Theodore Gering

Theodore Gering

Theodore Gering studied evolutionary biology at Harvard under Stephen Jay Gould and draws on that basis to develop digital innovations in inter-sectoral cooperation, cross-platform and cross-border cooperation. Partners include Microsoft, IBM, the World Bank, USAID, UN organizations, Public Private Partnerships and not-for-profit. He lives and works in Amsterdam, The Netherlands.

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