Collaboration Strikes Balance Between Opposing Forces

In business, collaboration is typically a team activity in which the interests of the prospective team members are known to be in conflict.

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For example, in the marketplace, vendors want to sell high; purchasers want to buy low (supply chain collaboration challenge). Each subcontractor working on the design of a complex system wants to concentrate on satisfying its own obligations (collaborative engineering design challenge). An internal subject matter expert, tapped for an ad hoc consultation by another unit within the company, is typically already working on something else (knowledge management challenge). These conflicts are inherent and won’t go away. Nevertheless, these situations exemplify some of the most important opportunities for collaboration in industry.

Collaboration combines fast‑track team building with ongoing conflict management. Whether collaboration succeeds or fails depends, first of all, on how well the team leader identifies and communicates the ways in which collaborating will serve the interests of the team’s members. Separating underlying interests from arbitrary preferences is the basis for constructively managing conflict and for revealing the team’s true purpose. Appreciating that the current collaboration can set precedents for the future will make collaborative partnerships sustainable. Understanding the nature of complementary capabilities exposes the mechanisms for creating value that would not be available without collaboration.

“Clearly defining the common denominator—the areas where it makes sense to share resources, costs and risks—is the single most important task in establishing a collaboration,” says Daniel Armbrust, president and chief executive officer of SEMATECH (www.sematech.org), East Fishkill, N.Y., a research and development consortium formed by members of the semiconductor industry that takes its name from SEmiconductor MAnufacturing TECHnology. “In collaboration, the hardest work is done up front.”

The emphasis on up‑front work is due, in part, to the psychological dynamic of collaboration itself. Collaboration is a form of agreement. In consideration of any agreement, each party consciously or unconsciously has a “walk‑away” alternative, the one that will be adopted in the absence of reaching agreement. The easier it is to accept the walk‑away, the less likely that the proposed agreement will be accepted. Collaboration in industry is rarely pursued unless the existing relationship between potential partners is at least tolerable—as with buyers and sellers in a supply chain, for example. In such situations, the walk‑away alternative to collaboration becomes a fairly comfortable status quo—an easy, safe choice. Much of the burden for overcoming this barrier falls to the team leader, who must present the common denominator at the collaboration's launch meeting; but, policies set by management could help or hurt.

“In many enterprises, collaboration represents change that intrudes on the daily routine, and people will resist it for that reason alone,” says Tara Holloway, industry quality manager for Graham Packaging Co. Inc. (www.grahampackaging.com), a York, Pa.-based manufacturer of custom blow-molded plastic containers for branded consumer products. “Management must explicitly allocate the time necessary to build and maintain collaborative relationships—and must protect that allocation against day-to-day erosion.”

What works?

A few, well-chosen performance metrics tracked by senior management across all collaborative projects will show what works and what doesn’t in a particular enterprise, and will make it easier to pinpoint and reward staff who have mastered collaborative skills. Regularly forming cross‑functional teams within the enterprise will make collaboration more of a habit before attempting riskier external collaborations. On major collaborative projects, an executive steering committee that can be invoked to contend with entrenched “we’ve never done it that way” obstacles is a recommended practice.

Manufacturing currently lives in a world in which many of the improvements possible within four walls have been achieved, or soon will be. Much of what remains to be done demands that manufacturing enterprises look outward. In such a world, collaboration offers unique returns on low capital investment; but, it is not free. More than money, collaboration exacts a price in creativity and insight.

Marty Weil, martyweil@charter.net, is an Automation World Contributing Writer.

SEMATECH
www.sematech.org

Graham Packaging Co. Inc.
www.grahampackaging.com

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