Co-opetition and Language Teaching Organisations

Image by Flickr user pedro_qtc. Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Image by Flickr user pedro_qtc. Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Fiona Thomas is Director of Languages at Net Languages in Barcelona. She’s also the author, alongside Andy Hockley, of Managing Education in the Digital Age, forthcoming on The Round. This post first appeared on Fiona’s blog.

Over the last year I have noticed a shift in how some EFL publishing companies and other EFL groups are moving away from just talking about what they are doing and how wonderful their products, services and authors are to sharing interesting blog posts, discussions and information generated by other publishing companies and EFL professionals. This current climate on EFL social networks is refreshingly energising and is a great forum for growth at both individual and industry levels.

To a certain extent this is an example of co-opetition, a concept I was first introduced to back in 1999. For those of you not familiar with the term, it is a mixture of cooperation and competition which arguably leads to a supportive, innovative, and pro-development work culture and climate. However, although at an industry level EFL co-opetition is on the up, and publishing companies and individuals are reaping the benefits, few language schools seem to be fostering this sort of climate within their organisations.

A lot of language schools either seem to be very cooperative or very competitive, but few seem to bring the two forces together. Few recognise the benefits of nurturing a sharing, collaborative environment a long with stimulating and rewarding individual excellence. Being competitive is part of human nature and so encouraging a certain amount of competitiveness is healthy I feel in any organisation. This is why we love playing games and one of the reasons why the concept of gamification is so popular in the EFL industry at the moment. We rise to the challenge of trying to beat out opponents and strive to win. A competitive environment, therefore, provides us with an incentive to do things faster, better, cheaper, etc. with corresponding benefits for our organisation where we work.

But a highly competitive environment can lead to winning at the expense of others and therefore at the expense of the organisation where we work. This competitive culture can become a problem, especially in larger organisations. Let’s take the example of a language school with different departments, different branches and even different schools. Each part of the language organisation will probably work with different markets and therefore have characteristics and objectives which are unlikely to be the same. On the whole, specialist groups exist for strategic reasons and not as money-making ventures in themselves (probably covering costs and small profit margins is all that is expected). However, in some competitive environments, these groups are pitted against each other in terms of turnover and profit. While this policy can occasionally help to spur people to react to poor results, on the whole it is not conducive to encouraging beneficial synergic relationships between the groups.

Language organisations which cultivate a culture of cooperation on the other hand, tend to lead to a happier sharing work-environment and a strong institutional identity and interest in the welfare of the school as a whole. Indeed Peter Senge, in his book The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of The Learning Organization, argues that this culture is necessary for organisations to learn and grow in the right direction. He questions why a company with managers with an average IQ of 120 functions at a collective IQ of 63? Lots of brilliant individuals do not mean a brilliant team. So fostering a cooperative culture would seem to be beneficial.

A cooperative culture naturally arises in smaller and newer language schools where most people working there tend to have a closer relationship and feel that everything they do plays a part in the success of the school. However, this culture of cooperation stops working well when two things happen: firstly, when only a few people contribute to the greater good and the rest feed off what the few share; and, secondly, when no recognition is given to those contributing more or showing excellence. The incentive to continue to contribute to the common good tends to diminish when nobody seems to notice or appreciate these contributions.

So it seems to make sense for  language schools to try a third way and take a digital leaf out of what is happening on the social networks in the EFL community and try to develop a culture of co-opetition. I’m not suggesting that it is easy to create such a culture, but if schools strive to cultivate a supportive, dynamic working culture in which ideas are shared, but at the same time encourage individuals to strive to reach their potential as individuals, the result could lead to a happy and thriving environment both for the school and for the individuals working there.


Senge, Peter M. (1990) The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of The Learning Organization – Doubleday

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