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Collaborating with competitors: 5 tips to managing competition in multi-stakeholder collaboration

I hear and read about collaborating or cooperating with competitors more and more. Perhaps, it's just me as it's a topic I've been studying for several years. But it seems that collaboration, in many different contexts, is becoming mainstream.

Collaborations come in many forms but especially multi-stakeholder collaborations have been gaining more and more ground in addressing complex, "wicked" sustainability issues in value chains. Inevitably, being involved in multi-stakeholder collaborations means that you'll be sitting at the table with a competitor or two or more. Companies that I work with are more and more interested in, or rather curious about, what collaborating with their competitors means. On face value, competition is easy to spot. Sony competes with Samsung. Renault competes with Nissan. Yet, these companies did and still do collaborate together.

As a researcher who has a long standing interest in how organizations collaborate to innovate, cooperating with competitors is, rather, paradoxical. It raised questions for me. How exactly do they compete? What exactly are the competitive boundaries? Who exactly are competing? Where exactly in the value chain is competition the most fierce?

Here are some tips and opinions on multi-stakeholder collaborations based on my ongoing research on collaborations in the context of R&D and sustainability.

  • Multi-stakeholder collaborations include multiple and often many stakeholders and are usually pre-competitive. It's very unlikely that they'll be product-innovation oriented because, in my opinion, appropriating value from innovation created by multiple and/or many stakeholders is difficult.

  • In multi-stakeholder collaborations competition occurs at different horizontal levels of the value chain. At levels where products are harder to differentiate (commodities), competition is more apparent and it's more difficult to cooperate.

  • There is more room for collaboration with competitors than you may think, even considering anti-trust, collusion laws. In fact, I believe the only way to bring about systemic change in value chains (or production systems) is through multi-stakeholder collaboration. The cooperation among horizontal levels (competitor levels) leverages the urgency and negotiation power needed to realize change elsewhere in the value chain.

  • Managing competition in collaborations means continuously balancing the individual (or company) interests and the collective (or collaborative) interest, the competitive element with the cooperative element. Sustainability initiatives aim to address collective problems often related to common goods or resources. Although collective goals, especially in sustainability, may be good for 'all of us', individual interests or benefits are what keeps us engaged and motivated to work on the problem. It's essential to maintain a balance.

  • Competitors don't magically bond together, especially in multi-stakeholder collaborations. These collaborations need experienced, neutral intermediaries to guide the process and guard engagement. Neutral intermediaries are not necessarily NGOs (non-governmental organizations). NGOs often compete with other NGOs or (non-profit) organizations for resources (financial and otherwise) to support the causes they are most concerned about. Neutral intermediaries are free from conflicts of interests. They recognize and safeguard collective interests while accommodating for individual company interests.

Resources for managing collaborations with competitors

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  • Collaborating with competitors for sustainability - a manager's guide

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  • Collaborating with competitors for sustainabiity - an assessment tool


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