posted 6 Mar 2006 in Volume 9 Issue 6
Collaborative Advantage: How Organizations Win by Working Together, by Elizabeth Lank
One of knowledge management’s key contributions to improving business management has been to provide a better understanding of the value of collaboration, both within and between organisations. As well as competing with rivals, most organisations also co-operate with others, either via informal relationships or more formally with legally binding undertakings such as joint ventures.
The importance of such collaboration is reflected, for example, in the number of new patents awarded in the UK for inventions developed in collaboration with overseas partners – about 20 per cent, according to figures collated by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).
But until recently, collaboration has not been a closely analysed subject – the analysis stopped at Porter’s ‘Five Forces’ framework. However, the value of co-operation between organisations is becoming clearer. It can help build competitive advantages, as well as lowering costs – and help greatly in the development of new technology, of course.
Corporate strategists have therefore developed a model that captures the main elements of co-operation, known as the ‘Four Links’ model. These are labelled: informal co-operative links and networks; formal co-operative links; ‘complementors’; and government links and networks.
The first includes the range of contacts that arise from organisations joining together informally for a common purpose. Some form of legal contract, such as alliances and joint ventures, usually binds formal co-operative links. Complementors add more value to others’ products than they could by developing the complete product alone, while government links and networks relate to the relationships that exist between national and international governments and organisations.
While there is empirical evidence to support tangible business benefits derived from co-operation and collaboration, little systematic work has been done to educate managers and corporate leaders in making collaboration work in practice. Herein lies the value of Elizabeth Lank’s book, Collaborative Advantage.
Lank defines collaborative advantage as, “The benefits achieved when an organisation accomplishes more than it would have independently, by developing effective working relationships with other organizations”. The hypothesis that Lank puts forward is that to succeed as a single organisational entity, it is becoming increasingly important to participant in different collaborative processes. In other words, competitive advantage is dependent on establishing collaborative advantage.
Manifestations of collaborative advantage, according to Lank, include:
More effective research;
Greater market influence;
Increased probability of winning business;
Faster, better, or cheaper development of products and services and markets;
Faster, better, or cheaper delivery of products or services;
Meeting an external requirement such as government standards;
The book is structured as a practical guide to developing effective external and internal collaboration practices. The focus of Collaborative Advantage is therefore more in the ‘how’, rather than in the ‘why’ and ‘what’ of collaboration. The book moves from defining collaboration objectives to structuring, resourcing, nurturing and communicating collaborative effort, all the way through to sharing the learning that results from collaboration.
The book includes a number of short case studies drawn from both commercial and not-for-profit sectors that are used to illustrate theory in practice. What I also found particularly useful were the ‘collaborative advantage checklists’ at the end of each chapter. The checklists have been designed to help managers ensure that they think through all aspects of the collaborative process. The checklists do not propose a specific course of action, but they are designed to stimulate thinking on how to program and manage a collaborative undertaking.
Most of us have some experience in working as a member in collaborative ventures, either within the organisation or with others outside our business. Collaborative arrangements do not necessarily have to be formal undertakings and they can include both internal and external task forces, steering groups and project teams, as well as more complex collaboration networks.
Collaborative working is fast becoming the standard operating procedure in the knowledge economy. Therefore, anyone who has to either work in, or manage a collaborative arrangement, will benefit from reading this book. Collaborative Advantage is a thin volume packed with wisdom and it can therefore be read through quite quickly. I strongly recommend that any collaborative group use the book as the first step before launching into project work.
The book, due to its systematic approach to the management of collaboration, is also a very useful tool for internal and external consultants who may be brought in to facilitate a specific collaborative effort.
Elizabeth Lank has made a significant contribution to the practical management of collaborative ventures. Collaborative tools are available to most companies, but many of them do not know where to start using them. This book goes a long way in helping to remedy this.
However, Lank also warns us that collaborative advantage can only be achieved as a result of a management philosophy that embraces collaborative working practices. Results can only be achieved with full and visible backing from the senior leaders of the organisation. Lank, in my opinion, leaves the most important checklist until last:
“The leaders of the organisation need to ask themselves:
Are we committed to opening up to partner organisations?
Are we ready to invest for the long term in these relationships?
Are we prepared to accept the give and take of collaboration?
Are we prepared to give the people who represent us in collaborative ventures the support and investment that they will need?
Are we prepared to invest in developing our own collaborative capability?”
These questions are perhaps the first that should be addressed before using the rest of the book in an organisational context. The last words should, perhaps, be left to Lank: “Once you have embraced a collaborative philosophy, and developed your collaborative capability, the only limit to what your organisation can achieve is your collective imagination.”
Mikko Arevuo is the CEO of consulting firm Delta Strategies Ltd, as well as a visiting lecturer in strategy and knowledge management at London South Bank University in the UK. He can be contacted by e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Please also see his feature, “Gone, but not forgotten”, on page 20.
Collaborative Advantage: How Organizations Win by Working Together
Author: Elizabeth Lank
Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006
(see also: http://www.think.plus.com)
Price: £25 (www.amazon.co.uk)