Collaborative advantage: why working together is like a marriage

February 5, 2015

Posted by in Blog.

On the 12th February, Start Network agencies and CDAC- Network representatives will come together to discuss collaborative advantage under the DFID supported Disasters Emergency Preparedness Programme.

Collaborative advantage is a term which first appeared in the July 1994 Harvard Business Review, and is an interesting departure from literature and common thinking at the time which was advocating competitive advantage. In this paper the softer side (or as the author describes it “the art”) of collaboration is explored in depth from over 500 interviews across 37 organisations and 11 countries.

The results are fascinating and have been used by the Start Network Team, in discussions with colleagues from the Partnership Brokers Association, to begin to frame a way of talking about and measuring the “value” or benefits of collaboration for the Network and its stakeholders. Three findings from this research are particularly striking.

  1. Collaboration yields benefits that are more than just a ‘deal’. It creates living systems that evolve progressively in their possibilities
  2. Collaboration creates new value together rather than mere exchange.
  3. Collaboration cannot be ‘controlled’ by formal systems but requires a dense web of interpersonal connections and internal infrastructures that enhances learning.

The research highlights that “relationships between (organisations) begin, grow and develop – or fail – much like relationships between people”, and then goes on to describe collaboration rather like a marriage. Finally the author identifies that there are generally five key stages in any “marriage” between organisations i) selection and courtship ii) getting engaged iii) meeting the family iv) the vows and v) setting up housekeeping.

Having been through a process of project development and selection, followed by a range of meetings, sub-granting, documented commitments and inception conversations, it is fair to say that the DEPP collaboration is arguably around the step v) stage which means that there may well be challenges ahead around

  1. Broader involvement; more staff come on board and the collaboration reaches deeper into the respective organisations and provides positive and negative disruption to work patterns and priorities
  2. Discovery of difference; previously hidden organisational idiosyncrasies come to the fore and language, cultural and organisational differences provide opportunity for, or barriers to, engagement.
  3. Respect vs resentment; respect that builds trust begins with an assumption of equality. At this stage trust can be incredibly positive and powerful, while mistrust can be corrosive and toxic.

Other tensions will also surface and it is important that these are raised, aired and explored by the agencies. The Network is already learning that perspective is an important consideration when discussing collaborative tensions. For example a Network peer review and project selection process that took place for the DEPP at the end of 2013 and beginning of 2014 was originally perceived as burdensome, disruptive and counter-productive by members and participating members.

By the beginning of 2015 however the narrative around the process was beginning to shift towards a place that acknowledged that while the process was uncomfortable, it actually enabled deeper, more robust and ultimately more effective relationships to be formed.

This is not to conclude that collaborative processes need to be designed to deliberately provoke tension and disruption, but that uncomfortable forming and storming conversations can eventually lead to stronger relationships and collaboration.

Why is collaboration important to the Start Network?

Start Network member agencies collaborate because they believe that achieving the vision as set out in the Network Declaration of Intent

requires agencies to work together. The agencies believe that the change in the humanitarian system that is required is bigger than any one agency working alone.

Network agencies work together not only to access new resources (e.g. receiving grants) but also non-financial benefits – intended and unintended.

However, we also know that membership requires significant investment from the participating agencies, both in terms of fees and in time, energy and passion spent engaging with the Network. We assume that to be deemed a worthwhile collaboration, the combination of financial resources accessed and value-add from working collaboratively must outweigh the financial inputs and non-financial investments made.

While all agencies invest financially, their non-financial investments inevitably differ and may change quite markedly over time. It is hoped that all members will benefit from accessing new resources, but the greater and more consistent benefits come from the unique drivers underlying each member’s priorities – whether articulated explicitly or not. In other words, an agency will get more added value from membership to the extent that it is able to internalise and operationalise collaborative advantage.

Why is the DEPP important in terms of collaborative advantage?

Each project in the DEPP portfolio is a unique and dynamic collaboration in itself. All 19 Network agencies have been, and will be involved in some way. Each project also involves external partners too, including second line providers, universities, private sector companies and others.

This is significant as we explore collaborative advantage not just for the Network, but also how the Network can be a vehicle for other organisations to achieve their goals too. This is critical for the Network in order for it to achieve the goal of being viewed as a public good.

We will be exploring, over time, how collaborative advantage can be measured – interrogating areas such as how policy, attitude and system change can be achieved, how technical transfer takes place, what contributes towards staff improvement, how spin-off activities are catalysed and how new relationships are formed.

This (adapted) definition of collaboration is helpful to have in the background when discussing collaborative advantage

“Collaboration is highly diversified teams working together inside and outside an (organization) with the purpose to create value by improving innovation, (stakeholder) relationships and efficiency…..

A gap still remains in our ability to articulate and evidence the added value of working together for us as organisations and the people we serve. This both limits the way we talk about success when things go well and paralyses involvement when things go awry.

The DEPP provides the Start Network an outstanding opportunity to interrogate the “value” part of this definition in more detail and to see adaptation and change as concepts to be embraced rather than as failure or disruption. The Collaborative Advantage workshop will be an important first step in this direction.


1 “Disasters Emergency Preparedness Programme”; Department for International Development, 2014

2 “Collaborative Advantage; the art of alliances” Rosabeth Ross Kanter, Harvard Business Review, July 1994

3 Start Network Declaration of Intent

4 “Collaboration, what does it really mean?” Carlos Dominguez, Cisco Blog, February 2011



Main photo: Consortium staff at the recent Age & Disability project workshop


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