Andrea Learned

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The Social Lens: Collaborative IS Competitive

What if collaboration gave your company a competitive edge?  And, what if competition became about taking the lead as an information-sharing resource? Both are the case when it comes to corporate leadership. But many businesses leave this opportunity on the table.

A 2012 MIT article covering research into the key sustainable business questions caught my eye on just this topic. And, one question within that study really stood out: Does your organization collaborate with any of the following around sustainability? The answer options were: Local or Regional NGO, National or International NGO, Government Agencies, Organizations that are your competitors, Academic organizations.  None of those answers held even a 25% share for the respondents.

The “red alert” siren should be going off about now for any executive reading those numbers. Lack of commitment to collaboration reflects short-sighted corporate leadership that will surely hinder meaningful sustainable development. There is simply no room for a stand-alone entity within a healthy universe of interconnecting systems of people, planet and profit.

The opportunity lies in shifting  an organization’s culture toward collaborative thinking and a new understanding of competition.

Collaboration and Influence

Sustainability-driven companies like the oft-cited Interface and Patagonia are recognized for becoming vulnerable and diving right into the hard work of forming partnerships and alliances – for the sake of the bigger sustainability picture. In fact, that’s why they are “oft-cited.” Both founded by pioneering thinkers, these companies operate not as every man for himself, but as ventures dedicated to elevating any conversation about what makes doing business more sustainable for all. They do this both within their respective textile and apparel categories and outside of their own industries (and sometimes with NGOs). The collaborative cultures of Interface and Patagonia reflect a belief that influence can be more powerful than control.

As Eric Lowitt puts it in his new book, The Collaboration Economy:

“…companies can no longer control, but now only influence, their own destinies.  As we know, the skill set for command-and-control situations is vastly different from the skill set for influence-and-persuasion situations.”

According to Lowitt, a corporation’s portfolio of collaborative partnerships is one type of competitive advantage worth building. That is where the influence lies that will shape and develop business moving forward.

Of course, this can be tough cultural transition, but the companies that do take the collaborative plunge win. They can still be leaders, by being among the first to step up and reach out. By doing so in this now more social business environment, they look relevant and innovative to today’s stakeholder communities.

(The New) Competition = Top of Mind

As part of the collaborative outreach, using social networks to unearth like-minds and suss out new opportunities is crucial. Leveraging the widest channels to share, educate ad elevate an entire industry  is by no means altruistic . By committing to being a center of industry big thinking, a company no longer needs to be perceived as “at the top.” Instead, through smart content curation and authentic social engagement, companies compete. By adding to, and sharing, the collective industry wisdom, a company becomes top of mind for future collaborative partners, employees, customers, suppliers and investors.

The business world has turned upside down since many of us joined it. Competitive advantage now comes from collaboration and sharing, not going it alone and hoarding industry elevating insights. The way to tap and amplify the power of this broader reach is by engaging with social networks. Done well, it empowers corporations to find and connect with like-minded partners, toward forming a strong foundation for future innovation.

The race to the top now means launching from common ground and looking for long-term solutions, not going to your own corners and fighting for quick wins. Social networks like LinkedIn, Twitter and Google+ are safe spaces from which to forge connections that build better businesses, better industries, better communities, and a better world. Collaboration and social engagement make it easy to find and contribute to discussions that are the root of the next generation’s most sustainable business developments. Businesses taking this approach really can’t be beat.