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Monday 14 September 2015

The collaborating trade

(The 'collaborating trade' is one of four styles of trade those seeking to work with others need to know about and use. To find out about the remaining three trading styles click here.)    

To find examples of collaborative trading look for collaborations focused upon objects (or people) of mutual but differing interest: IT companies collaborating with mobile phone manufacturers, where the former sees the mobile phone as a new peripheral platform for their software and the latter sees it as core to their business; health services collaborating with social services to better meet the needs of an individual, where the former sees a person to be cured and the latter sees a person to be supported in their lives; police working with a welfare group focused on the needs of abused women, where the former sees victims of crime and the latter sees vulnerable women in need of ongoing emotional and practical support.     
You can also look out for less tangible things of mutual but differing interest, such as knowledge, influence, access and status: where commercial research and development companies collaborate with non-commercial university research departments, the former could see gaining knowledge as about making discoveries that will enhance profit, whilst the latter could see it as about enhancing overall human understanding; where lobbyists collaborate with social enterprises, the former could see gaining influence as about achieving close and productive relationships with key movers and shakers, whilst the latter could see it as about being able to do more to enhance people's wellbeing and quality of life; where multi-national companies collaborate with national governments, the former could see issues around gaining access as about getting to do more business, whilst the latter could see them as about maintaining the integrity of institutions and the security of borders; where political organisations work with voluntary organisations, the former could see gaining status as a means of gaining power and influence and the latter could see it as about enhancing profile and attracting additional donors.  

Obviously, the differing ways of perceiving many of the things mentioned above are not mutually exclusive, the behaviours, activities, outputs, and consequences associated with them intermingling and contributing in their own unique ways to whatever a collaboration is seeking to achieve. They do this most effectively, however, when all partners not only appreciate the differing perspectives held but also develop a shared way of perceiving which enables discussion about mutual interests, supports effective action and helps progress towards goals.

An excellent example of the above occurs within complex scientific collaborations, such as Cern's Large Hadron Collider Project, where engineers and scientists with discrete and diverse specialisms, expertise and perceptions need to develop shared ways of understanding and talking about complex areas of each other's work that intersect and have an impact upon the overall progress of the project. Essentially, they create a unique language that encapsulates or 'packages up' the key things all partners need to understand and appreciate about each other's work whilst they collaborate with each other.            

A business world example, one that most of us are keenly aware of when it fails to happen, is when IT firms, expert consultants and organisational managers need to work together to develop specialised software or automated systems. Again, all partners need to develop a jointly understood language that they can use to get the job done effectively; the IT firms package their complex software into easily understood descriptions and user friendly interfaces, and the expert consultants and managers do similar with their knowledge and expertise, putting them into forms that IT experts can appreciate, assimilate and manipulate.

Where the focus of a collaboration is less conducive to the creation of a jointly understood language more emphasis is put upon gaining expertise in each other's area of work, interests and way of doing things. This helps collaborators create an empathy for each other's position which can then inform decisions and actions.

For example, when police, special interest groups, community groups and charities work together it is important for each partner to become immersed in the others' worlds as much as possible. Through this immersion each partner gradually develops a feel for how their collaborators might perceive and respond to a specific situation. When the focus of a collaboration is a complex and emotive problem with shifting dynamics and consequences, such as the abuse of women and domestic violence, this sense of what other partners might think and do when presented with a specific situation can be of immense value, helping partners address issues in not only new and collaborative ways but also informed and considerate ones.

In short, to trade collaboratively partners need to gain expertise in each other's work area, special interests and way of doing things. This enables them to find out how their trading partners view and respond to those things of mutual interest. It can also help develop a jointly understood way of describing and talking about things (especially those things of mutual interest) which can be used to enhance the exchange of knowledge and ideas and the overall quality of collaborative working. Where a jointly understood language or way of describing things cannot be developed, the empathy developed by building expertise in other partners' work areas and interests, etc., can be called upon to play a more central role in informing partners' joint decisions and actions.

Where the collaborative trade is particularly effective               

The collaborative trade is particularly effective where innovative solutions are required to address unique, often localised problems and it is important or inevitable that, for whatever reason, the trading partners keep their integrity, both structural and moral.

One can see, for example, how keeping a clear distinction between the police and the groups they collaborate with to combat domestic violence would help reassure victims about being perceived as uniquely vulnerable people in need of help rather than just one more crime that needs to be dealt with, so encouraging them to engage more readily with the agencies offering support.       
Similarly, multinational businesses and organisations seeking to address environmental and social issues in the developing world search for national, regional and, perhaps most importantly, local organisations with which to collaborate. These 'in country' organisations possess independent identities, reputations and credibility which make them trusted 'go to' and 'listened to' presences within their areas or sectors.

They also have knowledge and perspectives that can lead, when combined with the resources and expertise of international businesses and organisations, to ground breaking solutions to challenging problems.

For example, Hewlett Packard partners with entrepreneurial businesses and individuals in Kenya to ensure that ewaste (old computers, etc.) is sustainably disposed of or recycled. This has resulted in an innovative and sustainable approach that uses shipping containers not only as collection points but also as hubs of networks of local microbusinesses and individual ewaste collectors.

Another good example is the collaboration between CAFOD (an international charity) and AWARD (a regional community group in Pakistan), which helps and encourages women to start their own businesses so they can support themselves and their families. AWARD's local knowledge and experience enables an innovative, regionally focused approach that involves training and encouraging women to start up businesses that are truly sustainable, such as selling local produce and rearing local livestock. AWARD's local profile and credibility, which is further enhanced by the success of the businesses it helps to create, also enables it to have a positive impact on wider issues affecting women, such as access to education and healthcare and awareness of women's rights.

So, acknowledging, valuing and exploiting the boundaries between partners (and likewise the separate identities that help maintain them) is a crucial aspect of the collaborative trading style, playing a significant role in not only generating innovative solutions but also implementing them effectively within local environments.

Available at Amazon 'Sleeping with the Enemy - Achieving Collaborative Success' (Third Edition)

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