What makes partnerships work? During ‘Collaboration: Discovering the Potential’, a Data2Move community event, prof. dr. Ard-Pieter de Man (Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam) shared valuable insights from extensive research. A certain attitude is important: “You don’t want to be in control, you want to be up to speed. To do that, you need to work together.”

Both researcher and consultant, professor De Man is an expert on partnerships between organizations. He is highly interested in organizations’ capability to change – and how partnerships can help make that happen.

Partnerships are on the rise, said prof. De Man while discussing current trends. Companies in the IT and pharmaceutical industries are taking the lead. “And not only that: they also make an effort to find out how to manage these collaborations. At the beginning of our studies, the companies we tracked used 11 tools to manage their collaborations – evaluations, legal aspects, etcetera. By the end, ten years later, they had 30 tools.”

One of the other trends: there are more and more multi-company partnerships. “Six, seven, sometimes even ten companies work together.”

3 core elements of success

Many partnerships fail, prof. De Man said, because of a mismatch between strategies or cultures, or because of a lack of trust. But then what makes partnerships succesful? He shared three core elements of success:

  • Structure
  • Relationship
  • Collaborative capability

You can properly take care of these by answering certain questions. For instance, in the case of structure: Who talks to whom? Which goals do we discuss? How are we going to share costs and revenue? Or in terms of relationship: How do we build trust? Is everyone committed? And collaborative capability: Are we willing to share knowledge? Do we have the right tools? Are we able to collaborate?

Everyone benefits: norms for collaboration

De Man emphasizes the importance of the relational aspect. Introducing his list of norms for successful collaborative behavior, deduced from research, he starts with empathy. Can you understand how the collaboration affects your partner(s)?

This is related to mutuality. “Your company benefits, and so does your partner,” De Man explained. “This is still a problem for many companies.”

In comes flexibility. Markets, needs, goals: circumstances may change. “Are you willing to evolve with them? Or do you want to stick to the contract?”

Other norms include commitment, a willingness to solve conflicts, and a strategic outlook: “If you can actually look ahead by two or three years, all partners involved can reap tremendous benefits – but all too often the focus is on the short term.”

To show how these success factors and norms translate to daily behavior, De Man shared the Abbott-Reata Behavioral Principles, including…

  • try a talk before you e-mail
  • celebrate achievements together
  • make it a habit to share information

Increasingly interdependent

Discussing examples from Air France and KLM (initially offering their customers more destinations; eventually learning from each other) and John Deere and Kespry (drones gathering topographic data; tractor drivers benefiting from data while planting), he showed how companies are becoming increasingly interdependent. And partnerships like these are just the beginning. All together, they help shape big ecosystems, where the fate of individual companies becomes intertwined.

“We still think of competition as something between companies, but it’s becoming something between ecosystems,” said prof. De Man. “In a data-driven economy, your success depends on your partner ecosystem. An ecosystem with the different parts supporting and strengthening each other.”

Getting up to speed

De Man makes it clear: managing diverse partnerships is becoming a competitive advantage – and the human element becomes even more important than it already was. This was an idea that resonated throughout our event. Asking our community members which take-away they found especially noteworthy, many of them responded along these lines:

“It’s not about technology, it’s about empowering people.”

“Collaborations start with relationships.”

“It’s the people who collaborate, not the companies.”

For companies who are hesitant to start forming partnerships, professor De Man provides a solid reminder: “With today’s rapid developments, you don’t want to be in control – you want to be up to speed. To do that, you need to work together.”