Network for Business Sustainability: Collaborating with Competitors

Addressing sustainability challenges can make unlikely bedfellows. Yet if messy, complex sustainability issues, such as climate change, deforestation, and fisheries management are to be tackled, organizations far more comfortable competing must sometimes learn to collaborate. Simply managing one’s own corporate activities through, for example, supplier compliance and product stewardship, does not solve the whole problem.

It can be challenging for businesses to coordinate actions with competitors. Sharing the intellectual property they often rely upon to maintain a competitive advantage is counter-intuitive. There are always a few who may use collaboration as an opportunity to free-ride, unravelling all the good work of progressive organizations. And trust, indeed community, must be built between those more adept at finding the catbird seat than finding common cause.

It’s perhaps surprising that there is keen interest amongst competitors in working together to solve the problems that do, after all, face us all, but there is.

The Network for Business Sustainability (NBS) — a non-profit based at Ivey Business School —  brings together academic researchers and business managers to address key sustainability challenges. Leaders from across Canada are assembled by NBS to identify the topics that they most want researched by management scholars. In their 2014 meeting NBS’s Leadership Council — comprised of about 15 Canadian sustainability leaders that cut across the for-profit and non-profit sectors — identified Collaborating with Competitors as a key challenge.

NBS sought to address this healthy concern by bringing together an internationally renowned research team and a group of forward-thinking managers to tackle one question: “How can business collaborate with competitors to identify and implement sustainability solutions?”

Working together, the project team developed materials that offer inspiring stories and evidence-based information aimed at enabling businesses to have positive impact on important sustainability issues through competitor collaboration. The goal is in part to inform managers of the best, research-based guidance on this critical issue, and provide additional inspiration through the stories of their peers’ experiences. Students — future managers —can  also access these insights through NBS’s academic community. And effort is also made to encourage academics to reach beyond the Ivory Tower to conduct a different kind of research. Involvement in the NBS co-creation process produces rigorous research that effectively integrates practitioner knowledge and comes in formats relevant to manager.

There is no question these efforts will continue to have a lasting impact on researchers and managers worldwide.