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Companies as communities of people – the true value of competitiveness

In such a difficult and controversial period, it’s worth taking the time to reflect about the value of words, their deepest meaning, their etymology, and try to rescue public debate from rhetorical nonsense, the excesses of propaganda and venomous fake news. All that chit-chat about “merit” – whether emphasising it in education is a “right” or “left” move, and how and how much we should connect it with “equality” – reveal, amongst other things, a breakdown in ideas and values that doesn’t help us understand what should be accomplished in order to set the wheels of economic and social development back in motion in this uncertain and lost country, and rebuild a Republican spirit, civil values and a sense of community.

Words, then. Let’s take one of the most talked about: competitiveness. Nomina sunt consequentia rerum (Words are consequences of things), warned those wise ancient Romans, and indeed, looking at the roots of words to gain a better understanding is a useful activity. The term ‘competitiveness’ derives, for instance, from cum and petere.

Cum meaning ‘together’, just as in ‘common’, ‘communion’, ‘community’ (the latter from cum and munus, ‘gift’) but also ‘constitution’ (cum and statuere, i.e. establish together, write together the rules for a common life).

Petere meaning ‘to make for’, ‘to seek’, ‘to ask’, to ‘beseech’.

That is, moving together towards a common objective.

In the most recent sense, as used in contemporary economic language, competitiveness is selective, it distinguishes winners from losers, it’s exclusive. However, looking at its etymology, its deeper meaning is inclusive, rich in values connected to notions of community. In order to bridge the gap between its origins and its current usage (‘collaboration’ v. ‘competition’), someone has coined, in economic writing, the expression ‘competitive collaboration’. Better than nothing.

These thoughts about competitiveness and ‘skills’ such as cum and petere can also be found among the wise, wholesome pages of a book recently published by Garzanti, Si vince solo insieme (Only together we can win), a conversation between Claudia Parzani and Sandro Catani, with a very inspiring subheading: Undici parole per scoprire il valore della diversità e immaginare il futuro (Eleven words to discover the value of diversity and imagine the future).

Parzani is a corporate lawyer, senior partner of international legal firm Linklaters and Chair of the Italian Stock Exchange and Allianz Italia. Catani is an advisor for large companies, with extensive experience in human resources management. In this clear-headed and ironic conversation, they discuss sustainable, environmental and social development, limits and opportunities of new digital technologies, an economy inspired by stakeholder values rather than shareholder values (stock profits and prices), geopolitical challenges in an unbalanced yet global and interconnected world, smart-working and work-life balance, civic rights and duties, power and responsibility, fragility and the search for happiness. Considerations about companies, where the inclusion of women, as well as listening skills, emotional intelligence and new concepts of social innovations, brings extraordinary value, as well as debates centred on community, Italy, the social and cultural reforms and political choices required to kick-start a social elevator that’s been broken for too long and rebuild a fairer and more balanced economic development.

Reading Parzani and Catani’s pages, a fundamental teaching by Pope Francis comes to mind: “The European economy was conceived by a spirit larger than the trading spirit. And if it were to lose this larger spirit, it’d be in serious danger of extinguishing itself.”

Going beyond the unyielding spirit of trading then, beyond an economy perceived as “the sad science” and really talk about people, not merely careers, roles, money.

Here’s the crux of the matter: we need to insist on a notion of “fair economy”, civil and inclusive, where competitiveness and solidarity, productivity and social inclusion go hand in hand, also thanks to a sense of responsibility embodied in “reformist enterprises” acting as responsible social players, able to generate wealth, widespread well-being, innovation, and a fairer future for the new generations.

And Italian enterprises, as Parzani and Catani tell us and demonstrate, include some prime examples of this.

Thus, the conversation turns into a veritable journey, a journey of discovery in which, in true Proustian style, one needs “new eyes to see”. A learning journey, based on three shared beliefs: “Firstly, listening to others is a prerequisite in order to face any future challenge. Secondly, fate may influence everyone’s future, but passion and determination increase the chances to reach the desired goal. Thirdly, and lastly, enterprises are communities of people united by shared emotions and fates, not merely machines whose purpose is production.”

There is, in the end, looking at young people getting ready to enter the world of employment and learn the languages of competitiveness and collaboration, a certain awareness concerning responsibility: “To have the chance and the responsibility to ignite a spark, to show that becoming who we want to be is possible, that limits are only in the mind, and that if we don’t compete, we can’t win.” Together, of course.

In such a difficult and controversial period, it’s worth taking the time to reflect about the value of words, their deepest meaning, their etymology, and try to rescue public debate from rhetorical nonsense, the excesses of propaganda and venomous fake news. All that chit-chat about “merit” – whether emphasising it in education is a “right” or “left” move, and how and how much we should connect it with “equality” – reveal, amongst other things, a breakdown in ideas and values that doesn’t help us understand what should be accomplished in order to set the wheels of economic and social development back in motion in this uncertain and lost country, and rebuild a Republican spirit, civil values and a sense of community.

Words, then. Let’s take one of the most talked about: competitiveness. Nomina sunt consequentia rerum (Words are consequences of things), warned those wise ancient Romans, and indeed, looking at the roots of words to gain a better understanding is a useful activity. The term ‘competitiveness’ derives, for instance, from cum and petere.

Cum meaning ‘together’, just as in ‘common’, ‘communion’, ‘community’ (the latter from cum and munus, ‘gift’) but also ‘constitution’ (cum and statuere, i.e. establish together, write together the rules for a common life).

Petere meaning ‘to make for’, ‘to seek’, ‘to ask’, to ‘beseech’.

That is, moving together towards a common objective.

In the most recent sense, as used in contemporary economic language, competitiveness is selective, it distinguishes winners from losers, it’s exclusive. However, looking at its etymology, its deeper meaning is inclusive, rich in values connected to notions of community. In order to bridge the gap between its origins and its current usage (‘collaboration’ v. ‘competition’), someone has coined, in economic writing, the expression ‘competitive collaboration’. Better than nothing.

These thoughts about competitiveness and ‘skills’ such as cum and petere can also be found among the wise, wholesome pages of a book recently published by Garzanti, Si vince solo insieme (Only together we can win), a conversation between Claudia Parzani and Sandro Catani, with a very inspiring subheading: Undici parole per scoprire il valore della diversità e immaginare il futuro (Eleven words to discover the value of diversity and imagine the future).

Parzani is a corporate lawyer, senior partner of international legal firm Linklaters and Chair of the Italian Stock Exchange and Allianz Italia. Catani is an advisor for large companies, with extensive experience in human resources management. In this clear-headed and ironic conversation, they discuss sustainable, environmental and social development, limits and opportunities of new digital technologies, an economy inspired by stakeholder values rather than shareholder values (stock profits and prices), geopolitical challenges in an unbalanced yet global and interconnected world, smart-working and work-life balance, civic rights and duties, power and responsibility, fragility and the search for happiness. Considerations about companies, where the inclusion of women, as well as listening skills, emotional intelligence and new concepts of social innovations, brings extraordinary value, as well as debates centred on community, Italy, the social and cultural reforms and political choices required to kick-start a social elevator that’s been broken for too long and rebuild a fairer and more balanced economic development.

Reading Parzani and Catani’s pages, a fundamental teaching by Pope Francis comes to mind: “The European economy was conceived by a spirit larger than the trading spirit. And if it were to lose this larger spirit, it’d be in serious danger of extinguishing itself.”

Going beyond the unyielding spirit of trading then, beyond an economy perceived as “the sad science” and really talk about people, not merely careers, roles, money.

Here’s the crux of the matter: we need to insist on a notion of “fair economy”, civil and inclusive, where competitiveness and solidarity, productivity and social inclusion go hand in hand, also thanks to a sense of responsibility embodied in “reformist enterprises” acting as responsible social players, able to generate wealth, widespread well-being, innovation, and a fairer future for the new generations.

And Italian enterprises, as Parzani and Catani tell us and demonstrate, include some prime examples of this.

Thus, the conversation turns into a veritable journey, a journey of discovery in which, in true Proustian style, one needs “new eyes to see”. A learning journey, based on three shared beliefs: “Firstly, listening to others is a prerequisite in order to face any future challenge. Secondly, fate may influence everyone’s future, but passion and determination increase the chances to reach the desired goal. Thirdly, and lastly, enterprises are communities of people united by shared emotions and fates, not merely machines whose purpose is production.”

There is, in the end, looking at young people getting ready to enter the world of employment and learn the languages of competitiveness and collaboration, a certain awareness concerning responsibility: “To have the chance and the responsibility to ignite a spark, to show that becoming who we want to be is possible, that limits are only in the mind, and that if we don’t compete, we can’t win.” Together, of course.