Collaboration has always been risky

A recent global collaboration study of 476 organisations found that nearly 70% have used collaboration apps.  Reliance on collaboration tools continues to increase as more companies use apps to support their business.  With that shift in workplace practice, or rather, scaling up of an existing practice, comes an increased risk of security breaches, ranging from data theft to compromised accounts and interference in business processes.  As recently reported by one of the most respected commercial threat intelligence teams in the world, Cisco Talos Intelligence Group, hackers are using collaboration tools to deliver malware, retrieve information about specific components and networks, and to establish command-and-control channels that can help lift data.

Collaboration security plans are not yet the norm despite a fast realisation by companies that collaboration tools are vulnerable to theft, which can impact business resilience.

Risks of this kind are likely to be minimised in the near future as businesses increase their demand for better, more competitive collaboration tools to support their workforce.  However, an increased level of collaboration between businesses poses different types of risk that have been a topic of discussion for decades and remain a major obstacle to good business collaboration.

Some of the earliest thinkers of business collaboration paid a lot of attention to the fact that collaboration between businesses is fraught with the risk of mistrust that can in turn hamper overall efforts. At times this mistrust can lead to one side, or indeed all sides, using collaboration as a sophisticated tool for deception; especially when competitors collaborate.

The idea of competitors working together to maximise growth and innovation goes back as far as the late 1980s when strategists like Gary Hamel explored how major brands like GM, Siemens, Canon and others used competitor collaboration as a growth strategy. 

As recently as this year Professors Adam Brandenburger and Barry Nalebuff promoted strategies of working through the inherent risks and benefits of such an arrangement.  However, it has been well documented that competitors do not always know how to collaborate and fail to appreciate how small risks can escalate and derail the entire partnership. 

many relationships die an early death when they are scrutinised for quick return

Prof Rosabeth Moss Kanter, Harvard Business School

There are some indicators that should be monitored; not just during the process of collaboration but also before businesses enter into any agreements.  The central idea is to ensure that each party should have a plan to manage collaboration risks and be able to respond or even abort the collaboration when the risks are unacceptable. 

Any agreement, no matter how well intentioned, any strategy for collaboration, is incomplete without clear, well thought-out risk management in place.

From a collaboration strategy point of view, it is clear that there is no template that can be applied uniformly to each collaboration.  Every arrangement is essentially unique because each company has its own culture and relationships between two or more businesses collaborating are unique.  There are simple principles that should be taken into account when developing collaboration agreements.  Following are five selected indicators that should be monitored as part of risk management.

  1. One of the first signs to watch for is the level of sophistication partners have about collaboration.  Before a strategy is developed, it is necessary for key decision makers to contemplate what a collaboration can’t be. For instance, one cannot use collaboration as a demand on partners to stop competing.  Attempting to use collaboration as a strategy to weaken or diminish your partner’s competitive capacity is an early indication of potentially more complex problems in the collaboration agreement.
  2. The second signal to watch for is the level of formality in communications.  Good collaborators have a warm and professional relationship and this must be reflected in communications.
  3. One inevitable part of strategic collaboration is a better understanding of organisational culture.  In the process of exchange of ideas, information, etc, collaborators have an opportunity to get a sense of each other’s culture.  This is a normal process of building trust. If one party becomes guarded and cautious in letting others see how their culture functions, then this could be symptomatic of a lack of commitment to collaboration.
  4. Collaboration is by definition about transactions.  It is inevitable that at some point one party may do more ‘heavy lifting’ than others.  However, real collaboration is not about keeping score nor immediately asking for something in return.
  5. A fifth signal and strong indication of weak collaboration is a pattern of excuses offered each time a partner fails to deliver on an agreed task.  While it is normal for processes to become disrupted and cause delays, in good collaboration partners do not want to jeopardise their partnership by being consistently late with delivery.

The risks associated with competitor collaboration can be managed efficiently when the collaboration is founded on personal rapport, and philosophical and strategic compatibility between the key leaders.  As another early thinker of business collaboration Rosabeth Moss Kanter surmised, ‘many relationships die an early death when they are scrutinised for quick return’. 

The above selection of signals of potential risks are all rooted in that kind of thinking.  Ensuring that collaboration is approached as a genuine growth strategy can mitigate risks.