Collaboration is the new "it" trend in business strategy circles these days. Everyone is talking about it. And most people believe it's necessary if we're going to solve the world's seemingly intractable problems — such as poverty, climate change, access to education and healthcare, creating renewable energy sources, and increasing global security. Technology has dramatically simplified our ability to access, analyze, and act on ever-expanding volumes of information, and to do so more effectively by connecting and collaborating.
But, does collaboration deliver on its promise? Or is it at risk of simply becoming a new form of "greenwashing" as companies talk the talk, but don't walk the walk?
To make a collaborative effort effective, it's important to think through what it will mean for everyone involved. That starts with mapping key parameters: Who are the players you want to work with? What does each bring to the table? Why would each player be motivated to work with the others? Figuring this out upfront is critical. The next hurdle is figuring out how people are going to work together in practice, including which tools and resources you have available to facilitate the process.
Real, genuine, messy collaboration involves reaching out to unconventional organizations that your company may never have worked with before. A rule of thumb to keep in mind: If it feels uncomfortable, overwhelming and challenging, you're probably on the right track. If it were easy, these models of collaboration would have been done before.
These partnership strategies also require a big-picture understanding of the landscape or system you're working within. You can identify areas to leverage by mapping out the particular challenge you want to explore, including where and how different stakeholders fit across this map. To get started on mapping complex systems, check out Marshall Clemens' work with the Tellus Mater Foundation.
These complex partnerships also require the understanding that when working at a system level, there is often no defined end point for your activities. The further you go, the more opportunities you identify. Therefore, it's helpful to frame the scope broadly and allow for unforeseen change and modification rather than establishing a set timeline with a strict exit/sunset clause.
We often take the enabling role of technology for granted when collaborating on complex, systems-level problem solving. Technology has improved communication flows with "anyone anywhere"; made processes exponentially more efficient; enabled resilient feedback loops; and improved our decision-making through rapid synthesis of large amounts of complex data. But technology doesn't need to be framed as the innovative solution itself — it can also be applied to improve existing processes.
For example, in Kenya, HP has collaborated with the Clinton Health Access Initiative, the Kenyan Ministry of Public Health & Sanitation, Strathmore University, and other players to reduce the turn-around time for providing results of HIV testing in infants. The result is that health care workers in the country now have near real-time online access to other vital reporting data. Through this multilateral collaboration and the innovative use of technology, government, the private sector, NGOs, and academic players have tapped into a diverse wealth of expertise to improve processes that literally save lives.
What started in Kenya as a specific process improvement expanded to a much broader information revolution, encompassing other programs and information flows, including disease surveillance and reporting. It's a collaboration success story that we can all learn from.
When embarking on your own partnerships, keep the following tips in mind:
Make it real. Don't fall into the "collaboration-washing" camp by talking more than doing. Be aware that the ease of technology can sometimes mask the importance of fostering the personal relationships needed to make a solution stick. Chemistry between partners across the system is impossible to manufacture and can be the defining thread that keeps things on track.
Make it resilient. Even great partnerships don't last forever. When architecting solutions, avoid "single points of failure", including dependence on any single player. Design solutions to thrive regardless of whether players come and go from the collaboration.
Make it reciprocal. Partners should not be afraid of capturing business value from collaborating. Be clear around the expectations of different parties (inputs as well as results). Ror a company, this might include increased employee engagement, the development of new products or services and improved corporate reputation, among other things.
To solve the big challenges in the world today we need to aim for nothing less than breakthrough levels of innovation. An African proverb offers: "If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together." We all have a role to play in making these breakthroughs happen.