“Alliances between companies whether they are from different parts of the world of different ends of the supply chain, are a fact of life in business today.” This simple statement introduces one of the best pieces on collaboration ever written, “Collaborative Advantage: The Art of Alliances”; by the one and only Rosabeth Moss Kanter.
It really is a piece that should be read by anyone remotely interested in collaboration. In fact, since it was first published in 2004 in the Harvard Business Review, I have read it many times. The reason is simply because virtually everything that Prof Kanter writes turns out to be true when applied to practice. Her depth of insight into the real workings of collaboration remains unsurpassed. Not wanting to spoil the pleasure of learning for all true collaborators at heart, I will reveal only one of the truest insights from the article, “successful partnerships manage the relationship, not just the deal.” While this sounds simple and all too logical, the reality is that only a small fraction of collaborations work within this principle. People simply tend to overstate the level of effort they put into a relationship.
Collaboration is now such a buzzword that it may be in danger of losing its meaning. The mindless way in which collaboration, the term, is evoked in day-to-day business discussions makes me believe that the gap between the hard work required to make collaboration work and its regular use in conversation is widening. I honestly would be the happiest man alive if I was wrong. As one who is naturally inclined to be optimistic, but not Panglossian, I think that critical work is needed to make collaboration live up to its potential.
“collaboration is a great disruptor and as such
requires meticulous attention to business strategy detail”
For a start, it is time for acknowledgement of collaboration as a discipline in its own right, rather than simply a branch of another business discipline. It is a discipline. The main reason for this is the simple fact that collaboration is distinct from co-operation, teamwork, partnerships and other forms of value production dependent on people working together; the distinction being the added mix of entrepreneurialism, innovation and resilience. This is where collaboration needs a strategy that is not lodged in, say, the HR policy of a business or some other part of it. Collaborating organisations understand one simple thing that others don’t; collaboration is a great disruptor and as such requires meticulous attention to business strategy detail. Making a choice with whom to collaborate is not a simple matter of affinity, brand alignment or shared interest. It is more about the capacity and willingness of two or more businesses to accept new risks, share new IP as a result of any innovation borne from the collaboration, and to increase transparency.
These factors are not possible without a specialist focus. Simply tasking your Operations Manager to convene a meeting with Marketing, HR, IT and your sales directors may result in some insights but no real progress in developing a collaborative way forward. Collaborating business stems from a collaborative culture, which in the simplest terms, is shared sentiment of the way things should be done. For an organisation to reach its best through collaboration, its culture has to be mixture of strategic direction and organic factors such as personal values and attitudes.
And for successful businesses, this is where it all starts.