Picture: 123RF/EVGENI BISHTOK
Picture: 123RF/EVGENI BISHTOK

Samewerking,” former registrar of banks Errol Kruger, worried about financial sector joint ventures, once told me, “is dangerous.  Everyone involved in a collaboration thinks the same thing: ‘Ons is saam en jy werk.’” Both parties understand that they are in it together, but each thinks the other will do the work.

It’s debatable how true that is. If there is one upside to the horrors of Covid, it is that it has forced long-overdue levels of collaboration in SA among business, labour and the government to tackle the multiplicity of problems in the economy. Of course it’s not perfect. Nothing is. But it’s better than sniping publicly at those whose world view is different to yours.

SA rarely seems to do better than when it has a shared purpose and common goal, and this appears to have been the case so far in the pandemic environment. In among the noise of Digital Vibes and personal protective equipment (PPE) procurement corruption, there has been a tireless effort to better structure the country’s response to the disastrous economic fallout of repeated lockdowns to stem the three waves (so far) of Covid infections. It is unlikely, for example, that civil service unions would have accepted a 1.5% pay increase unless it had been hotly debated in a forum such as Nedlac.

There can be no clearer evidence of what goes wrong when collaboration fails than the pitiful response of the intelligence service, the police and the army to the rising tide of lawlessness in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng in July, which allowed nine days of looting and about R40bn in confidence-sapping damage to take hold, unchallenged.

Collaboration is hard enough among like-minded parties. Sometimes, though, you have to sit around the table with people whose world view is completely at odds with your own to find solutions to seemingly intractable problems. Global tourism marketer Alan Merschen may just have struck gold. He has created The Sigmund Project, a nonprofit platform aimed at rejuvenating a battered global tourism industry. Its aim is for anyone with a tourism-related idea to post it onto a public platform for commentary or support.

Over three months it has had nearly 10,000 unique visitors from 108 countries, and nearly three dozen ideas have been posted – one is an idea for an app to support solo women travellers, another for an app to advise on the location of the world’s best street art and another looking for support to provide home-school holidays where families can travel and access local teachers. One guy wants to build a solar-powered zeppelin for trips across Australia.

The idea is to create partnerships. Someone with a travel background might need coding support or accounting services, or could team up with someone else in the world struggling to make a similar concept work. It operates on the principle of “nothing mentioned, nothing gained”.

Merschen has a reputation in the tourism industry for connecting people. “No idea gets put forward and no idea gets to move forward unless it gets shared,” he says. “In all my years in tourism and entrepreneurship, every time someone required me to sign an NDA [nondisclosure agreement], the project went nowhere. The times people shared ideas, they moved forward.”

While The Sigmund Project is about advancing tourism, there is no reason that other industries could not emulate the idea. Merschen would find it flattering if they did. There is no reason that other sectors could not benefit from a similar collaborative approach.

There is also no reason that a similar concept could not work in a company. So often, employees are frustrated either by the fact that their line manager takes credit for their ideas, or simply ignores them altogether. If companies created a clear and transparent collaboration platform where their staff could post ideas, colleagues could quickly support those that were viable, and those that did not appeal would be allowed to die quietly. At least they would get an airing.

Imagine if dolos designer Aubrey Kruger had the option of putting his idea for the concrete anti-erosion devices he created onto a public platform rather than go up the line to his boss, harbour engineer Eric Merrifield, who ended up taking credit and winning awards for the work?

The Sigmund Project could spark a small revolution in ensuring that bright ideas get aired publicly to make sure credit goes where it is due.

*Whitfield is a contributing editor to the FM

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