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Does the "C" Stand For Collaboration or Competition?

June 24, 2013

The Economist Intelligence Unit recently released a study on the future competitiveness of 120 cities around the world. New York was named the world's most competitive city -- at least through 2025 – followed by London, Singapore, Hong Kong and Tokyo.

Competitiveness was measured through eight factors: economic strength, physical capital and financial maturity, human capital, global appeal, social and cultural character, environment and natural hazards, and institution character, including the openness of political processes and the absence of corruption. Projections were based on a city's perceived ability to attract capital, business, talent and tourists.

I first ran across this study in (of all things) a sports article written by Jason Gay in the Wall Street Journal ("NYC is No. 1 Forever(ish)," June 7, 2013). In this somewhat tongue-in-cheek piece, Mr. Gay makes the point that some of this competitiveness is healthy while some of it is not:

  • People in this city can be competitive about careers, salaries, education, apartments, restaurants, fashion, pets, pet fashion – it truly never stops. One could argue that daily life in New York is itself a competition – the race to get out the door, the secret race on the sidewalk (oh, you didn't know about that?), the scramble for the train, for your caffeine jet fuel, and then to the elevator, the desk, the computer, the email… [yet] the city is still a thrilling sandbox. [However,] this is not always an attractive quality. This is a city of Type-A lawyer basketball and chippy banker hockey and even agro folks who try to "win" spin class…. Nobody wants to be seated at dinner with someone who is trying to outdo you about where they go on vacation.

So, this got me thinking about the ideas of competition and collaboration in our field, corporate social responsibility.

Competition was famously described by Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations (1776) as allocating productive resources to their most highly valued uses encouraging efficiency. Many economists believe that competition causes firms to develop new products, services and technologies, which give consumers greater selection and better products. And, greater selection of products causes lower prices for these products.

Obviously, competition occurs not only in business, but also in nature, education, entertainment, politics and sports. And, it occurs in corporate social responsibility – sometimes encouraged by various external rankings and lists (e.g., Fortune Most Admired, Best Places to Work).

Certainly, there has been much written about collaboration in corporate social responsibility. Hardly a conference workshop or professional publication goes by without someone extolling the virtues of collaboration and partnership. We even have a magazine, Alliance, which was founded on the idea of fostering partnerships in corporate social responsibility (I know because I was one of the co-founders).

Scott London has written extensively about the idea of collaboration after being commissioned by the Pew Partnership for Civic Change to study how collaboration was being used in the United States to build and strengthen communities. The form of collaboration that he studied and wrote about was described as a process of shared decision-making in which all of the parties with a stake in a problem constructively explore their differences and develop a joint strategy for action.

London found that collaboration can be a powerful alternative to conventional mechanisms for effecting change, such as coalitions, task forces and commissions. This is so because traditional organizations tend to be structured vertically – decisions are made at the top and people derive their power and influence from their positions in the hierarchy – while collaborative groups are structured horizontally with leadership broadly distributed.

At the recent 2013 CECP Summit, the theme was "Ahead, Together" and the idea of partnerships and collaboration was everywhere. In the opening plenary, Manual Pastor, professor of sociology at the University of California, asserted that we need to develop a whole new model of leadership. Instead of competing with one another as in a game of chess, we need to collaborate with one another like putting together a jigsaw puzzle, he suggested.

There were sessions entitled, "Leveraging Partnerships to Advance Your Objectives" and "Corporate Collaboration: Driving Societal Impact." There was even an award given for the best partnership between a company and a not-for-profit, which was given to Partners in School Innovation and Allied Materials Foundation, through – you guessed it -- a competition. Other awards were presented to IBM for its "Smarter Cities Challenge" with 100 cities around the world and The Mosaic Company for its "Villages Project" helping local farmers in India, Guatemala and eight African countries.

So, it seems to me that we need both competition and collaboration in corporate social responsibility. Healthy competition encourages companies to create signature programs that stand out from the pack – that differentiate the company and its brand from its market competitors – and that allow innovative ideas and pilot projects to flourish. But, collaboration with nonprofit organizations and other companies on the world's most pressing issues brings critical mass and imaginative thinking that might not be possible otherwise and allows the best projects to grow to scale. Sometimes, it truly "takes a village."

What do you think? Should CSR embrace competition or collaboration or both? Let us know by clicking here and sending me an email message with your thoughts. Alternatively, follow me on Twitter @tmcclimonCSRNow and comment there. Thanks for reading and sharing.


P.S. Did you know that according to a recent IMD Competitiveness poll, the United States ranked first among countries for competitiveness, followed by Switzerland, Hong Kong, Sweden and Singapore?


Peter A. Sahwell
The short answer to your question, I think, is both—competition and collaboration. I'd take the traditional concept of competition in business, that is to maximize market share and profit, and give it a twist, though. After some quick internet research, I discovered that the word "compete" is derived from the Latin "competere," which combines com- "together" and petere "to strive or seek". So competition originally meant to strive together. The world has enough of our modern definition of competition as it is. What CSR as a field can do is model a more enlightened way of how organizations conduct themselves. I agree with you that different companies' CSR operations can benefit from competition to the extent that they admire each other's initiatives for their excellence and impact; but if this competition gets in the way of coming together across companies to share ideas and best practices, then essentially you are duplicating typical corporate culture, which looks at competitor businesses with suspicion.

CSR can help nonprofits compete in the sense that you can help build organizational capacity (e.g., management skills, leadership training) so that organizations doing good work can do it better, which is not a zero-sum game as in business, but rather helps raise the bar for similar organizations in a city or region.

True collaboration in the horizontal sense that you mention is sorely lacking. In my experience, each nonprofit is in its own little bubble most of the time. It may work together with another organization on a project or initiative of some sort, but there usually is no carryover beyond the project's duration. Creating settings (e.g., conferences and meetings) where nonprofits can come together to share ideas is certainly good. What would be better is to help create systems so that nonprofits have a structured network with lines of communication set up for ongoing sharing and feedback, where they can share data and results with each other about what works and what doesn't. CSR can catalyze and help establish these types of networks, which can be set up as lasting entities that continue long after a company's CSR involvement ends.

Thanks for the thought-provoking post.
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