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In his best-selling book on the decline of community in the USA, Bowling Alone, David Putnam defines the 'reciprocity principle' as occasions when a person does something of value for you 'without expecting anything immediately in return and perhaps without even knowing you, confident that down the road you or someone else will return the favour.'

Professor Wayne Baker, an expert on reciprocity in the Department of POS at the University of Michigan, points out that reciprocity is a form of co-operation which involves the exchange of resources of some kind between people where there are no formal or legal agreements. Often the expectation of repayment is vague or undefined.

Reciprocity can involve the exchange of resources between two people but there can also be ‘generalised reciprocity’ where exchanges between a number of people take place within a large system, such as a community or organisation. Scholars such as Professor Baker argue that human beings are ‘hard-wired’ to reciprocate as reciprocity improves survival and is the very foundation of human society. However, while it is part of human nature, organisations can unwittingly discourage it by creating, for example, incentive systems such as bonuses which reward individual effort and undermine co-operation. .

The work of Francis Flynn from the University of Columbia’s business school has conducted research which shows that reciprocity improves productivity, promotes learning and builds a working environment which encourages trust and the experience of positive emotion.  

Humax, an American company, which has devised an 'On-line Reciprocity Ring' maintains that their evidence shows that fostering reciprocity –

  • Accelerates problem-solving
  • Accelerates the development and spread of best practices
  • Helps to quickly locate resources and create new resources
  • Reduces duplication of effort and reinvention of solutions
  • Increases the connectivity and cohesiveness of a group
  • Builds bridges across organisational boundaries
  • Contributes to a culture of collaboration.
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