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B2B Sustainability Collaboration: 16 lessons for managers

At the end of May in London twelve experienced senior sustainability executives got together for a 90 minute discussion on what B2B sustainability collaboration means for them, and to share experiences to date in managing a partnership approach.

I organised and chaired the meeting, via my other company, Stakeholder Intelligence. The expert roundtable was sponsored by BAA/Heathrow Airport.

From the transcript and final notes, I’ve pulled out 16 key lessons or pointers that might be helpful for those readers working collaboratively with other companies on sustainability/corporate responsibility:

1. Businesses are finally beginning to understand that collaboration is a pre-competitive issue, but there are still some who see it as a threat to their intellectual property.

2. Confidence building that collaboration does not undermine competitiveness is a vitally important challenge.

3. B2B Sustainability collaboration is about achieving existing aims but doing them better, faster and more efficiently through working together.

4. Collaboration on sustainability gives focus to what’s on the sustainability agenda already, joining up individual company plans with what needs to be achieved on the ground to make a difference at scale.

5. It’s currently/commonly a three stage process: –> Co-operation –> Co-ordination –> Collaboration

6. Stage four: ‘Co-Opetition’, needs careful consideration as to where the competitive and regulatory lines are drawn.

7. The framework which shapes market forces is the most important thing of all. Players within the market play a critical role in getting those signals and policy frameworks right and engaging with the government in order to do so. This is where collaboration and shared learning can play a key role.

8. Start off with short term optimisation goals. Because this is what gets everyone around the table and get this going before they talk about the longer terms going forward. BUT, don’t neglect the linkage between short term goals and performance and sustainability targets to medium and long term.

9. Getting a really clear and prioritised list of deliverables is vitally important. Set long term goals and some short-term quick wins to build immediate confidence and momentum.

10. It is most effective when you as the company don’t put yourself in the middle and have all other stakeholders around you. Success is based on a mutual set of objectives.

11. DON’T: Just talk about optimisation over systems change. All too often, when companies come together on collaboration issues, they only talk about optimisation when they really need to discuss systematic change.

12. Turn engagement and collaboration into a process. This is all about managing the business, not doing sustainability on an ad hoc basis

13. Partnerships can drive unique progress. Anything that you work on in the partnership has to have a strong business case and should be already in someone’s plan to do.

14. Sustainability is fundamentally about systems, approaches, collaboration etc. But too many organisations have their ‘strategy’, and because it’s what distinguishes them, they’re not prepared to share. Part of this process of engagement and education is acceptance that you’ve got to be prepared to give up some of these things for the greater good.

15. New sets of skills and capabilities needs are emerging, but HR’s role here must be carefully considered and re-thought. Education, training, capacity and skills development to manage collaboratively are vital areas for business focus and resources.

16. Think outside bilateral experience: city models where they’ve been able to drive forward best practice sustainable development, for example the C40 group of cities, very active post Rio+20. Likewise, the Heathrow Sustainability Partnership may provide valuable lessons.

We’ll also be making this topic a focus in Ethical Corporation magazine in the coming months given that skills and capacity building / training to manage complex B2B collaborations is clearly a vitally important emerging area.