CEF Spotlight

Collaborating for Sustainability: 8 Best Practices

By Velislava Ivanova, PhD, Global Sustainability Practice Director, CH2M HILL Veli_Ivanova

Corporations, governments, and the non-profit sector are increasingly facing sustainability challenges that are too complex and too costly to be addressed by individual organizations. In the past few years, sustainability leaders have recognized that progress they achieve individually is limited. As a result, new collaborative approaches to sustainability challenges have emerged and different models of collaborations have been created: company to company (GSK-Barclays) and company-NGO partnerships (CH2MHILL-TNC); single industry (Hotel Carbon Measurement Initiative) and multi-sector collaborations (Collectively.org). Providing one recipe for successful collaborations is difficult because of their diversity. Our experience in participating and managing collaborative efforts, however, suggests several best practices for successful sustainability collaborations:

  • Set a clear vision and purpose for the collaboration

Business priorities and stakeholder requirements most often drive participation in sustainability collaborations. Because many organizations participate in more than one partnership, setting a clear vision and goals for the collaboration is critical to avoid duplication with other organizations or initiatives. A clear vision and purpose will define the structure and longevity of the group, determine executive leadership support, and play a critical role in recruiting new partners.

Early in the collaboration, partners should decide whether it is focused on a specific issue or broad topics. For example, the Zero Discharge of Hazardous Chemicals (ZDHC) Programme (managed by CH2M HILL) is committed to leading the apparel and footwear industry towards zero discharge of hazardous chemicals by 2020, while the Sustainable Apparel Coalition has a broader vision to create a sustainable apparel and footwear industry. Both approaches can be successful. In our experience, collaborations addressing a single issue achieve their goals faster because of focus.

  • Determine membership criteria

Successful collaborations evolve and attract new partners. For example, the Electronics Industry Citizenship Coalition started in 2004 with eight companies and has quickly grown to nearly 100 partners today. Most collaborations start small. Designing the membership criteria to accommodate future growth, new partners, and cross-industry participation is important in order to increase the future impact of the collaboration and attract a good mix of partners with valuable expertise and capabilities.

Partners should decide whether tiered membership is desired and determine the optimum size of the group in relation to management effectiveness. The Canadian Oil Sands Innovation Alliance (COSIA), for example, consists of 13 members that represent almost 90 percent of the oil sands production in Canada. In addition, organizations and individuals who share COSIA’s vision can join the alliance as associate members.

Most importantly, membership criteria should define the expected contributions from each member such as financial support, human resources, time, and intellectual property. In our experience, an ad-hoc volunteer approach to resources and time may create disproportionate commitment and, therefore, tension among members.

  • Develop a clear governance model

Many collaborations start as informal partnerships. Often if successful, they evolve into formal entities. Regardless of the organizational structure, setting a clear governance model early in the collaboration, which outlines decision-making processes for both daily operations and strategic choices, helps achieve significant results quickly. For example, the complexity of the ZDHC Programme requires a multi-tier governance structure.

Members should consider establishing collaboration agreements, which not only describe roles and expectations, but also cover confidentiality clauses, antitrust compliance, and competition principles. Intellectual property created as a result of the collaboration should also be addressed. Engaging external support such as consultants and industry groups in the early stages can help develop the collaboration faster by building on previous experience, bridging different organizational cultures, and setting the administrative framework. Hiring staff dedicated to the collaboration at a later stage will drive towards achieving the goals with rigor and delivering results. Appointing an empowered collaboration manager will balance the time needed to ensure members buy-in on decisions with the need for speed of action. It is important to define an active role for each member during all stages of the collaboration.

  • Establish a financial contribution model

Financial contribution models can be as diverse as the different collaboration models. Members may pay the same participation fee or provide tiered contributions depending on size, membership status, level of participation, or other criteria. Members should be informed how the financial contributions are managed and account for the return on investment. In our experience, the business benefits from successful collaborations such a cost savings, resources conservation, and risk reduction significantly surpass membership costs because of the access to the collective knowledge, experience, and influence of the partners.

  • Engage relevant functions from the member organization

The success of external partnerships often depends on members’ ability to collaborate internally in their own organizations and engage relevant functions such as R&D, Investor Relations, and HR. Promoting internally sustainability collaborations through targeted communication and information forums is important for getting internal buy-in.

Recent research shows that executive-level commitment and Board of Directors’ support are pre-requisites for sustainability collaborations to succeed. Engaging company leaders early and continuously helps to gain their support and sends a message to stakeholders about the importance of the collaboration.  

  • Establish a transparent communication process

Transparent communication within the partner organizations, among partners, and externally with stakeholders supports the success of the collaboration. Partners should develop a media policy for the group, design a communication process, and select channels and milestones for communication, aligned with the collaboration objectives. COSIA, for example, provides annual performance updates in face-to-face and webcast formats, and will host an Innovation Summit this spring open to academia, governments, and industry. By designating a spokesperson for the group, members can keep company and group communication aligned but separate, focusing on the collaboration rather than on the individual members.

  • Engage stakeholders

Every collaboration has numerous stakeholders with different motivations, agendas, and areas of influence. Mapping them is important to identify stakeholders who are interested in solving problems. Engaging these stakeholders, interested in finding solutions, helps the collaboration make progress, establish credibility, and find trusted partners to spread its story. Convening a circle of “critical friends” from academia, nonprofits, media, and standard setters (a concept developed by Richard Ellis, VP CSR Walgreens Boots Alliance) is highly valuable because of their different capabilities, technical expertise, and perspective. Successful collaborations not only educate stakeholders, but also are about creating a shared vision and partnering with them.

  • Establish a platform for collective action

Most sustainability collaborations are virtual, and deploying technology to design a platform/virtual workspace for internal and external use enables the collaboration process. It can be populated with working materials, reference documents, publications, and information from external sources and can be used for dissemination of results. The platform can include a social media component that allows members and stakeholders to share feedback and build on the collective thinking of the group. In 2014, HP took the idea of a common platform for collective action to a new level, when it launched (together with GlobeScan) the HP Living Progress Exchange, an online collaboration platform to exchange knowledge, inspire action, and share best practices on sustainability.

All collaborations face challenges because of their partners’ different organizational cultures, level of commitment, executive support, and various drivers for participation, but in our experience the benefits outweigh the challenges. Leveraging the combined (human, buying, technical, PR) power of all partners is more effective, less expensive, and more productive and innovative than dealing with sustainability issues at an individual company level.

© 2015 CH2M HILL

Dr. Ivanova is an accomplished sustainability practitioner with broad international experience. She is the Global Sustainability Practice Director for CH2M HILL. In this role Dr. Ivanova manages a team of sustainability experts assisting client organizations with the development and implementation of sustainability programs, non-technical risk management, sustainability performance improvement, reporting and disclosure, and supply chain management. You can contact her at velislava.ivanova@ch2m.com or @Veli_Ivanova

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