$ocial Capital: Real Wealth of Nations

social capitalThe Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), is a 34 member combine of democracies around the world, striving for you guessed it, sustainable economic development around the world. It defines social capital as “networks together with shared norms, values and understandings that facilitate co-operation within or among groups.” It further elaborates ‘networks’ as real world links between groups or individuals. To elucidate this, let’s look at some examples. If you’ve ever watched over your neighbor’s home while they were away on vacation or sent a job posting to a professionally disgruntled colleague or friend; your social capital bank balance is not zero.

Short Supply of Vitamin SC?

For starters, social capital is not to be confused with ‘economic capital’ as such it does not have a tangible asset value. It has even lesser to do with social media, but an argument can be made that these platforms can help leverage the power of social capital better.

Renowned international think tank and educational charity, The Legatum Institute, in its 2015 edition of their signature Legatum Prosperity Index, has ranked 142 countries in terms of well being and wealth. This study comprises 8-equally weighted sub-indexes, in a bid to reveal the world’s most prosperous countries. Now assuming that every self respecting nation would like to have a good showing on these parameters, we should note disappointingly that India huffs and puffs its way to a dim 99 in the global standings. If you dive with me into the details of the study, the economy and governance are the shining lights (hurrah for Acche Din!) while personal freedom, health and entrepreneurship and opportunity (sorry to burst that startup bubble) are shameful compared to global averages.

But surprisingly, the parameter where India ranked worst was social capital at an unbelievably low 129 out of 142 nations globally! Trust levels in each other, willingness to spend time and money on charity and confidence in your network are woefully short in supply. The only places we beat world averages are in marriage (surprise, surprise) and religiousness. What happened to us? You’d think that with our aggressive baby making track record, social capital was at least guaranteed? The answer may lie in ownership.

Communication professionals, we are looking at you.

What connects businesses? Let’s reel off the usual – business potential, technology consolidation, portfolio expansion, all correct answers, but the enablers are always people. Decisions to do business, collaborate, exchange economic capital are all taken by people like you and me. Is it unrealistic to expect similar verve, pace and collaboration when it comes to social capital?

Operating in an agency setup exposes us to a vast multitude of people, brands, companies and professional groups. On a typical day, I meet business owners, investors, journalists, programmers, designers and service providers. Each conversation is a window into a world of potential. Expertise and domains might vary, but every one of them has the springboard of a ‘social’ network behind them.

Communication professionals can talk. Some can even write. The majority of us are in the earnest race to master both. But more importantly, conscious communication can be the thread that binds these potent ‘social’ networks to each other. Akin to wires in parallel lighting up hundreds of bulbs on a decked Christmas tree, we have privilege, nay, the responsibility to look beyond economic profit based decision making and feel the exhilaration of joining seemingly unrelated dots.

To test my theory in practice, I’ve made a conscious attempt over the last 6 months to consciously look for opportunities to enhance my social capital. This involves going beyond the defined communication consulting mandate, sometimes to the derision of core servicing teams who argue that it takes away from the core focus of what we are paid to accomplish. They have a valid argument, in my opinion, probably why sometimes I find myself operating in a default stealth mode.

The results have varied from failure to launch to exhilaration. To those readers with the question of what’s in it for me, I am happy to report that each social capital endeavor has brought (sometimes belatedly) reciprocity in equal or more measure. That is where the exhilaration lies. Not in the deliverance of expectations but the fact of being on the receiving end of a benefit when you least expect it. In fact, the term ‘social capital’ was brought to my attention during one such attempt at joining two dots. Instant karma I think! Let’s not sully the concept by Indian-izing with names like ‘jugaad’ or ‘networking’. They are fundamentally different because they are a means to an end. Social capital has no end goal, and thus no motive. If at all, it is to start a circle of impactful benefit that may, and I stress on ‘may’, come back to you one day.

There is enough thought behind this concept to apply this to cultural and societal benefit as well. Research shows that social capital bonds and bridges are also indicative of the stability in common society. Without wanting to bring myself in the crosshairs of the self-righteous nationalist brigade, I don’t see it as a mere coincidence that the rise of intolerance in this country comes at a time when we have had our poorest showing in social capital rankings. We are seeing a rise in what one expert succinctly put as intra-ethnic bonds rather than inter-ethnic bonds. Both are equally important for a fully functional society but a tilt towards the former creates disharmony. India could use a booster shot of inter-ethnic bonds to pull us out of this feverish stupor. Who better than communicators to champion the cause of social capital?

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