22/09/2014 06:32 BST | Updated 19/11/2014 05:59 GMT

Collaborative Businesses Can Still Be Competitive

Many businesses will understand the questions that Scottish voters have been asking - is it better to collaborate with your peers to drive success, or to go it alone? Ultimately, the strength brought through collaboration has won the popular vote.

When it comes to ensuring a sustainable future, at Forum for the Future we believe it is critical to transform the key systems we rely on. To do that means involving everyone in the value chain, from the producers and manufacturers right through to the end-user, all working together towards a common aim.

This week, Forum for the Future encouraged business leaders to look at the ingredients for successful collaboration in our event 'Cooking up Change'. Stuart Fletcher, CEO of Bupa - one of our Pioneer Partners - was one of the speakers at the conference and has also written passionately on the need for collaboration and how it is helping Bupa to scale up delivery and change. He said, 'We can make a meaningful impact alone. But global partnerships and collaborations will enable a transformational impact to be made. Multi-sectoral collaborations can unlock capabilities, skills, tools and networks which couldn't be accessed otherwise.' You can read his article on our site, here.

But how can businesses work together to progress a sustainability agenda and their bottom line?

There are many different types of collaboration that are relevant at different times and for different reasons.

  • Open collaboration - working with customers, idea-makers and your peers. This approach works best when there is a practical question you'd like answered and where you have reasonable control over the action that follows. When Forum for the Future worked with Sony on FutureScapes to explore how technology can enable sustainable lifestyles in the future, the company engaged leading futurologists, social commentators and experts from the fields of design, technology and sustainability from across the world, as well as contributions from the general public.

  • Vertical collaboration - stakeholders working together within supply chains, where shared goals can deliver new trust and improved ways of working. A good example of this is O2's Eco-rating, which saw the network provider working closely with handset manufacturers to develop a simple and robust sustainability assessment tool.

  • Horizontal collaboration - usually involving a multi-stakeholder approach, including engagement of policymakers and NGOs which is typically needed to create a shift at a sectoral level. Although difficult to manage successfully, this form of collaboration has the greatest potential for enabling transformative system change. A compelling example of this approach is Dairy 2020, a consortium project managed by Forum for the Future that led to a vision and guiding principles for a sustainable UK dairy sector and which involved representatives from the whole value chain, from farmer to retailer.

Often the key to successful collaboration is creating a pre-competitive space. Such a space allows competitors to come together to discuss strategic responses to often complex and difficult issues, as well as developing common methodologies and approaches. Successful examples of such collaborations include The Sustainability Consortium and the Sustainable Apparel Coalition.

If you picture a triangle, the top is where you compete; much of a business's marketing activity and R&D capability might be in this space. The bottom of the triangle is where you are managing shared assets with other businesses (for example, supply chains) or where there is a complex issue that needs addressing.

The Tea 2030 project is an example of precompetitive working at its best, bringing together key stakeholders from across the value chain to tackle the challenges threatening the sector's future, including Unilever, Tata Global Beverages, James Finlay and Twinings - four of the seven companies responsible for 90% of the world tea market.

Collaboration is key to scaling up, and scaling up is key to enabling significant change. After creating a pioneering practice the real challenge lies in bringing that practice to scale, creating a tipping point and making sustainable business the new mainstream.

If you'd like to know more about how to collaborate for success, come to our 'Getting it Together' page on the Forum for the Future website.