When Chinese Admiral Zheng He set sail on his seven voyages, he had at his command the largest and most powerful naval fleet ever seen.

With such a force at his disposal – backed by the might of the Ming imperial throne – he could easily have used it as a tool of conquest and subjugation. Instead, he used this strength as the basis for building a network of partnerships and peaceful cooperation.

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Part 1: Explorer and Manager
Part 2: Admiral and Leader
Part 3: Supply Chain Pioneer

For NUS Business School professor Hum Sin Hoon, this collaborative approach offers an alternative strategy to that advocated by another legendary Chinese commander, Sun Zi, author of the widely reprinted book, The Art of War.

For many years The Art of War has been a mainstay of business management reading lists. Applied to the business world, its antagonistic approach takes a zero sum, win-lose perspective, where the growth of one party comes at the expense of a competitor.

But in today’s complex and interconnected business landscape, professor Hum believes an alternative approach is required.

“The basic approach of The Art of War is about dividing the pie”, he says. If one party is to win, then someone, inherently, must lose.

Business battlefield

By working together and growing the pie, even if your share remains the same, you are still growing in absolute terms

Prof Hum Sin Hoon

Dozens of business books have been written adapting the military viewpoint of The Art of War to the business battlefield.

But, says professor Hum, the analogy of business competition as a kind of warfare fails to recognise that while competition can indeed be fierce, in today’s highly interconnected world business networks and relationships are often much more intricate and complex than the clear lines of animosity shown in warfare.

Aggression and conflict represent only one approach – and one that is often less than ideal – to managing situations in business, he says.

In contrast the essence of Zheng He’s Art of Collaboration is about growing the pie, not about dividing it, Hum argues.

artofwar“By working together and growing the pie, even if your share remains the same, you are still growing in absolute terms.”

Hum notes that on each of his voyages the first thing Zheng He did on arrival in a new port was to present and read out the emperor’s edict to the local rulers and residents, stating the purpose of the visit as “sharing in the prosperity of peaceful times.”

This win-win perspective is at the heart of what Professor Hum calls the values and principles of the Art of Collaboration.

“Take one simple idea – in war the only way to win is to trick your enemy, deceive your enemy,” he says.

“In fact all warfare is based on deception – that’s a quotation from Sun Zi. But when you talk about collaboration, clearly it cannot be deception. Collaboration is completely open between the parties, you have to be consistent in your behaviour, you have to be transparent, you have to embrace the values of honesty, mutuality, trust.”

Alternative to confrontation

In contrast the conquering approach advocated by Sun Zi calls for deception, guardedness, suspicion and unpredictability – “the more unpredictable I am, the more likely I will survive and the more likely I am to conquer the enemy” says professor Hum.

ships280He argues that the financial, social and political crises that have shaped the first decade of the 21st century show that an alternative to confrontation is badly needed – one that makes Zheng He’s collaborative approach especially relevant today.

That is not say that in today’s market economy there is no place for aggressive competition of the kind advocated by The Art of War approach.

Rather that in a world where the lines between competitors, customers and partners can be hard to define, such a cutthroat approach may not always be the most appropriate and the most sustainable.

The Art of Collaboration offers a different path; one that professor Hum says gives an alternative strategy to approaching contemporary business situations.

He points to the recent rapid rise of internet working culture – dubbed “Web 2.0” – with its emphasis on knowledge-sharing and mass empowerment through access to information – as a clear example of Zheng He’s collaborative approach in action in the modern world.

“In today’s world – what Thomas Freidman refers to as The World Is Flat – knowledge is no longer power, because everyone has access to knowledge; everybody has access to information. The key is to get value out of information and to do that, you have to work with one another – the only way is to collaborate.”

Crowd sourcing

Strategic Management ProgrammeHum points to what he calls collaborative networks of intelligence built up by programmers and other technicians that transcend geographical boundaries, helping all involved to work better and smarter.

“Tapping the network is really referring to tapping on everyone else. So when you have a problem, and others are aware of the problem, then others can help you solve your problem,” he says.

“This is what all the techies do every day. Whenever they have a bug in their system, they have a computer problem, they just post the question online. And somebody out there will come and respond with a solution. This is referred to as crowd sourcing, and that’s fundamentally collaboration.

“The internet makes this kind of collaboration not only readily available and feasible, it makes it an absolute must in order to get the maximum value out of today’s world.”