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updated: 11/4/2012 7:20 AM

Career coach: Collaboration among competitors can be useful

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By Joyce E.A. Russell
Special to The Washington Post

Greetings from Paris, where my colleague, Rob Sheehan, and I presented a session at the International Executive MBA Conference on what the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School is doing in terms of building stronger student teams.

We previously presented at this same conference on what we have done in our executive coaching program. The conference was organized around sharing best practices with universities around the world -- that is, sharing best practices with our competitors. It's amazing to hear specifics on what schools are doing to help executive MBA students through career services, tailored content or leadership skills training, among other things.

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What's even more remarkable is that people genuinely share details about their programs in an effort to help other schools improve their programs. I heard many directors and deans publicly thank others for ideas they got from a previous conference that they successfully implemented to boost their own programs. As many attendees noted, this is one of the best features of the conference -- that people willingly share ideas with each other, despite the fact that the market for students has gotten increasingly competitive.

In another example, BMW and Toyota have collaborated in the area of sharing costs and knowledge for electric car battery research, despite the fact that both compete in the luxury car segment. In fact, they have a history of collaborating with each other. In June 2012, they signed a memorandum of understanding aimed at long-term strategic collaboration in four fields: joint development of a fuel-cell system, joint development of architecture and components for a future sports vehicle, collaboration on powertrain electrification, and joint research and development on lightweight technologies. Further, the leaders of both companies signed a statement to reconfirm their companies' shared intention to strengthen the long-term, strategic collaboration between them.

Likewise, nonprofit agencies have engaged in more collaborative efforts, despite the fierce competition for funding. For example, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation funded a collaborative research consortium comprised of investigators around the world in order to speed up HIV vaccine development.

There are certainly some tips for ensuring that collaboration among competitors is done well (and legally). Obviously, there are concerns about companies who join together and set prices or engage in other anti-competitive behaviors. Aside from those situations, there may be times when competitors would benefit from working together to create win-win opportunities.

To create value for both parties: In the example of the executive MBA programs, the school sharing the information gets stronger recognition for having successful practices (which can help with rankings of programs), while the school obtaining the information gains some knowledge about new practices to implement. With BMW and Toyota, they noted that they share the same strategic vision.

To provide referrals: One situation might be when your firm has a specific niche and another firm is more effective with a different audience. Making referrals for each other could be in the best interest of the customer. In fact, customers will probably be appreciative that you referred them to the best source to meet their needs. Recall the classic movie "Miracle on 34th Street" where sales clerks at Macy's earned "good credit" from customers for referring them to competitor retailers for merchandise that Macy's didn't carry.

To share ideas to create solutions: Working with competitors might be important when both parties can benefit from knowledge sharing if neither has a full solution to a problem. Nonprofits are increasingly working together in an effort to put aside their own egos for the larger, common good.

To grow your sphere of influence: If you are a small firm or startup, partnering with competitors in your industry might enhance the public's knowledge of your industry. Some firms will share costs and partner for special events. Kathy McAfee's book, "Networking Ahead for Business," delves into the value of partnerships for smaller firms as they grow their businesses.

Strategist and author Evan Rosen describes how collaborative culture is changing business models and the nature of work in his book, "The Culture of Collaboration." He cites examples from Toyota, Boeing, Procter & Gamble, DreamWorks, Dow Chemical, Industrial Light and Magic, and the Myelin Repair Foundation, and shows how their methods can create value in almost every industry. Based on his research and the work of others, here are some time tips for collaboration:

Be clear about what you are collaborating on. Set boundaries for collaboration at the beginning.

Have a limited and well-defined purpose for the collaboration.

Be clear about use and ownership of existing and jointly-created intellectual property.

Depending on the situation, you may need to involve legal counsel.

Collaborating with other firms, even competitors, may be what is needed to help both parties advance and improve. Be open to the possibilities, yet clear about the boundaries.

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