Alliances between companies, whether they are from different parts of the world or different ends of the supply chain, are a fact of life in business today. Some alliances are no more than fleeting encounters, lasting only as long as it takes one partner to establish a beachhead in a new market. Others are the prelude to a full merger of two or more companies’ technologies and capabilities. Whatever the duration and objectives of business alliances, being a good partner has become a key corporate asset. I call it a company’s collaborative advantage. In the global economy, a well-developed ability to create and sustain fruitful collaborations gives companies a significant competitive leg up.
Yet, too often, top executives devote more time to screening potential partners in financial terms than to managing the partnership in human terms. They tout the future benefits of the alliance to their shareholders but don’t help their managers create those benefits. They worry more about controlling the relationship than about nurturing it. In short, they fail to develop their company’s collaborative advantage and thereby neglect a key resource.
Three years ago, I began a worldwide quest for lessons about productive partnerships, especially but not exclusively those intercompany relationships that spanned two or more countries and cultures. My research group and I observed more than 37 companies and their partners from 11 parts of the world (the United States, Canada, France, Germany, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Turkey, China, Hong Kong, Indonesia, and Japan). We included large and small companies in both manufacturing and service industries that were involved in many kinds of alliances. To ensure that the lessons were widely applicable, we sought companies less prominent in the business press than giants like IBM, Corning, Motorola, or Ford. Several of the relationships that we studied were more than 20 years