Why collaborating with the competition can make business sense

David Grayson

“Businesses need to strategically prioritise engagement with collaborations where they can contribute and learn the most” – David Grayson

Businesses are engaging in varied models of collaboration to improve their own, and society’s resilience.

Businesses banding together to learn from each other is nothing new: think of medieval guilds or chambers of commerce. More recently,business-led corporate responsibility coalitions have galvanised action on economic regeneration, social inclusion and responsible business practices. Business in the Community, for example, has got member companies to act on issues such as employability, homelessness and mental health in the workplace.

General corporate responsibility coalitions have been supplemented by coalitions focused on particular sectors, or on specific issues including water or human rights. Some of the leading international corporate responsibility coalitions such as Business for Social Responsibility (BSR), CSR Europe and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development are involved in specialist coalitions such as Better Coal (BSR), looking at CSR in the coal supply chain; European Automotive Working Group on Supply Chain Sustainability (CSR Europe); and The Tire Industry Project, which looks at the environmental impact of tyre making and use.

Major companies are using technology to improve the profitability and sustainability of their extended supply chains. For example, 2degrees, an online community for sustainability professionals, provides knowledge-sharing platforms for companies such as Tesco and Asda Walmart. These have virtual meeting spaces, online match-making between people seeking solutions and solutions-providers, and virtual libraries of practical knowledge and contacts. They are backed up with sophisticated user-profiles of participating suppliers and individual employees.

Companies from different sectors can find synergies: Barclays and GSK, for example, recently announced a partnership to provide financing for medicines in low-income African markets.

In some cases, companies are collaborating with competitors as well as NGOs and public sector bodies, to address specific problems.Refrigerants Naturally, for example, brings together Coca-Cola, Pepsico as well as Red Bull and Unilever in an alliance with Greenpeace and Unep to develop more sustainable refrigeration technologies.

Confronted with a plethora of corporate responsibility coalitions, multi-stakeholder initiatives and ad hoc co-operative ventures, businesses need to strategically prioritise engagement with collaborations where they can contribute and learn the most.

A specialist NGO, The Partnering Initiative, suggests that there are four partnership skills: understanding other sectors, technical knowledge of partnering, people and relationship skills, and, underpinning it all, a mindset for partnering. Companies such as Microsoft, BG Group, Shell and Nestlé have integrated partnership training into their executive development programmes.

Competition will stimulate innovation in sustainable products, services and business models. However, as Unilever’s Paul Polman has observed: “In areas where big breakthroughs are needed, we must step up joint working with others.”

David Grayson is director of the Doughty Centre for Corporate Responsibility at Cranfield University School of Management, and co-author with Jane Nelson of Corporate Responsibility Coalitions: The Past, Present and Future of Alliances for Sustainable Capitalism.

This article originally appeared on The Guardian Sustainable Business Blog.

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