In this article, Alan Field, management systems consultant gives advice and guidance for organisations thinking of adopting collaborative working practices and complying with BS 11000.
What is collaborative working?
In a virtual world, business collaboration is becoming an essential and not simply a ‘nice to have’. Many organisations have always recognised that working constructively with customers and suppliers - rather than in aggressive, combative ways - is good for revenue and profit. It can also be used to support social responsibility goals, as well as marketing activities involving charitable and voluntary sector interactions.
BS 11000 is one way to focus these aims and aspirations. However, it needs careful planning to ensure that it is a standard upon which you do actually want to focus your efforts. If you do, then the powerful outcomes can flow from collaborative working rather than simply just buying in services or delegating things to others.
LRQA has said in its BS 11000 product datasheet: “it is a new standard that sets out a strategic framework specification to allow establishment and improvement of collaborative business relationships.” BS 11000 robustly provides a neutral platform for creating effective collaborative programmes for mutual benefit, through common language and integrated application between delivery partners.”
Sound too good to be true? Well, BS 11000 is very much a standard where you can make it true if the implementation is about collaborative working rather than trying to impress auditors and assessors with a beautifully written and documented system. In other words, the “neutral platform” that LRQA talks about is something in which you really can see a benefit and work with business partners to achieve the collaborative programmes needed to show compliance to BS 11000 and, more importantly, an enhanced management system.
Collaborative working, traditionally, meant a physical proximity of stakeholders or, at least, joint delivery of products or services. As we have all learnt, there are now virtual ways of doing business and, progressively, these are leading to different ways of making and maintaining regular and closer contacts. In other words, collaborative working becomes an organic development of ‘business as usual’ rather than just a specific task to be delivered. It can also be a way to plan and better utilise the way virtual relationships are managed where we may never physically meet with people with whom we have almost constant communication.
One obvious point, that is sometimes forgotten, is that collaboration can be another name for managing risk. Some organisations see risk management plans as commercially confidential. However, sharing and discussing a common approach to risk management can be a powerful enabler, as it often opens doors of communication about a wide range of unspoken aspirations or concerns amongst stakeholders. BS 11000 can again provide the neutral platform to do this.
Don’t we collaborate already?
Almost certainly, yes. Yet BS 11000 is more than just the act of collaborating. It is about having plans, values and goals that include collaborative working.
If that sounds highfalutin, then it isn’t. Look critically at your current business collaborations. Is it simply procuring the cheapest service that meets specification? Is it contracting out work and never really explaining your business goals to the sub-contractor? Do we avoid joint ventures and similar arrangements? Do we see our customer as just a stakeholder rather than a collaborator? Consider for a moment whether that is all you want from those business relationships. If the answer is yes, then BS 11000 probably isn’t a suitable vehicle for you.
However, before making that decision, it is worth looking at BS 11000’s specific requirements and seeing if they align with future goals and policies. In short, collaboration is not really about delegation or even joint working – it is about seeking the most effective and profitable way of doing business in the future. Visions and policies are often seen as just defining what an organisation wants. However, a vision or policy can include how collaborative working will help achieve it.
What is collaboration?
Collaboration is a broad concept. At least an informal analysis of this needs to be done in your organisation to see that all such working is actual identified. You may be surprised.
For example, it can include the way you interact with customers (for example, where there are complex logistical or project management requirements), so your customer has become a collaborator and not just a consumer of the goods or services you provide.
Large multi-sited organisations may not see other plant, offices or sister companies as collaborators. Yet they almost certainly are. Consider whether it is sometimes easier to deal with a trusted contractor than, say, one of your sister companies. Are the communication issues really simpler with the latter just because you happen to have the same owners? Perhaps not. The neutral platform can be used to provide a common approach to collaboration without individual parties feeling there is a pecking order of interests to protect.
If you do have a joint venture (JV) or other consortia or partnership arrangements, these will certainly include an element of collaboration. The fundamental linkage with BS 11000 is how different levels of management (from top management to the most junior) will be dealing with their opposite numbers in the partner organisation. With a joint venture, this is almost always formalised in a contract. The disciplines – and advantages – this brings can be translated into wider collaborative arrangements which then become more organically managed. With flatter structure organisations, it may be found that better structuring the lines of communication will encourage a very much ‘one delivery’ approach.
Those involved with project management will know there is a lot of difference between an early warning of potential issues and simply waiting for something formally to happen. Frequent contact without an “us and them” approach goes a long way to facilitate good outcomes. People who learn to trust and respect one and another will almost always manage risk and profitable outcomes more effectively - for all parties concerned.
One practical example of this is asking your own top management how often they meet with their counterparts within key suppliers or contractors? If such a meeting would be viewed as a waste of time, then this probably means that more analysis of the advantages of exploring mutual interests should be considered.
Again, BS 11000 can provide the neutral platform for this.
Strategic managers can sit down together - or perhaps just virtually - and agree goals of how collaborative working will extend the desired outcomes of their respective organisations and, often, how more closely aligned these are than perhaps they had previously considered.
A similar exercise can be done with all layers of management to chart the individual advantages - and perhaps disadvantages - of having more focused communication with collaborators.
Relationship Management Planning (RMP)
BS 11000 requires that a relationship management plan is put into place. As we have already discussed, this is not just a document to be put together. The starting point is what we have discussed already; analysing and thinking about business relationships. These may include customers – both external and internal – as well as contractors, suppliers and professional advisers.
An RMP requires discussion and consultation which some organisations may not see as an appropriate use of management time. Some of your collaborators may think the same. This can be especially frustrating if you are keen to pursue an RMP. One way of looking at this would be to ask if your organisation, or your collaborator, could achieve more if an RMP was in place.
’More’ does not necessarily mean more profit or better meeting performance targets. Some organisations - especially if they are risk averse – may be attracted by more certain outcomes for reputation management. As with all negotiations, the cornerstone of dialogue is being flexible in outlook and seeking out what is important to all parties – not just what you see as important. Discovering what these goals are, will feed directly back into an RMP.
BS 11000 is a fairly new assessment product and it isn’t going to be for everyone. Yet even the process of looking at whether it is a course to pursue can lead to many realisations and benefits. It certainly isn’t just writing a manual. It is another road to continual improvement.