· 9 min read · Features

Collaboration: Learn from an organisation in the same sector as your own

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Where better to learn than from an organisation that's in the same business? Companies are beginning to see the value in sharing information and ways of doing things. Peter Crush reports.

Should businesses fling open their normally tightly secured doors and invite their rivals inside for a look around and a spot of hobnobbing? Bizarre as this notion may sound, this is a trend that could actually become more popular, as companies seek to learn from each other in tough times rather than simply get by in splendid isolation.

This learning approach (see p47) reverses the natural inclination of businesses in harder economic times, which is to insist employees hold any new product development and innovations closely to their chests. 'Open house' theory says that bringing your rivals together could actually be a far better way for staff to learn what others are doing so all are presented with better opportunities and insights to collectively get them out of the recession.

It is a brave decision, given corporate espionage is estimated to cost the world's 1,000 largest companies £22.8 billion a year, according to PricewaterhouseCoopers, and that it has been going on almost as long as business itself. As early as 483 AD the Byzantine emperor Justinian I is reported to have sent spies to China, (then the world's leading silk-producer) to steal silkworm eggs; the emergence of the US in the industrial revolution is attributed to a Boston merchant stealing the plans of the Cartwright power loom; while as recently as 2007 it was disclosed consumables company HP had dispatched its competitive intelligence unit in 2002 to uncover the plans of rival Dell for a new upcoming range of printers.

But businesses - even arch, and bitter rivals - do have a precedent of helping each other for the common good. In 2007, Coke and Pepsi joined forces to root out a former Coca Cola secretary attempting to sell Pepsi the formula for a new soft drink. (Notable, given Pepsi had only recently filed angry petitions against Coke alleging it had 'entered into a conspiracy to disrupt its business operations'; it accused it of luring away three of Pepsi's key sales personnel).

But while this kind of collaboration is laudable, it is now going one step further, and entering the collaborative learning space. Firms, it seems, can now actively learn from each other.

"A printing company recently found it was failing to attract new graduates," says Stephen Citron, managing director of the Informatology Learning & Development Forum, a group that promotes inter-company co-operation. "Because it knew this problem wasn't just localised but industry-wide, it did the previously unthinkable and entered into a partnership with other rival printing firms. They each donated time, money and expertise to design a recruitment CD ROM equally promoting all of them, distributed throughout schools. The end result was that not only did the original printer double the number of applications it received a year later, but job applications to its rivals also went up and benefited the entire printing industry as a whole."

Citron organises events called 'Corporate Raids' which put this open-house policy into place. Host organisations invite rivals in, and Citron facilitates a day of learning that everyone benefits from (HR magazine attended one of his recent events - see opposite page).

Calls for more firms to experience the benefits of collaborative learning were first specifically made in a CBI report, Collaborating on Skills, published in November 2005. Its research, conducted with the Department for Education and Skills, found 55% of bosses thought collaboration would improve individuals' competencies, and just over 40% said it would improve their working practices. More than 20% said it would be a source of high-quality training, but nearly half said the reason for not collaborating was because the right opportunity had not presented itself. Crucially, though, more than 40% also said confidentiality was a real issue.

"Confidentiality or the perception of confidentiality is heightened at the moment," says Gary Haycock-West, CEO of consultancy Blue Cube (UK). "Companies are actively trying to find out what their rivals are doing. This could have an impact on whether they will want to get together, to learn from each other for the greater good. But those fearful of collaboration should realise there is a big difference between what is in someone's head - and is being imparted verbally - and actually taking away documentation. Exchanging experiences should not seriously be considered a security issue - it is an opportunity to share best practice. HR directors only really need to decide what is commercially sensitive information, and what useful experiences staff can learn by imparting and hearing feedback from others."

The idea more HR professionals should encourage collaborative learning is being promoted by several groups, including Lifelong Learning UK, the sector skills council for the development of post-compulsory education. It runs a programme called Business Interchange, which puts education tutors into businesses. Host businesses are encouraged to be completely open with these tutors, who get an unrivalled insight into what is going on inside that business that they can offer to their students. The business's employees should, in theory, also benefit from learning from tutors about what the attitudes of the next generation of future employees are, and hear from source what style of learning generation Y responds to, and what their motivations are - all vital learning (see case study right).

This collaborative training revives a model first seen in the 1960s, when the then government launched group training associations - bodies that shared information and training facilities between companies that could not afford their own permanent training fixtures. Although they have waned in the years since, last year the Government announced it would expand its investment in them, creating 10 new ones. Senior CBI policy adviser Fiona Murray says: "They act as brokers between learners and employers. It's a model the CBI would advocate, especially if employers could make a commitment to bring all their suppliers in their own supply chain into this mix."

But some organisations do not need convincing of the power of collaborative learning. Abbey is one business that has also formalised the 'training from each other' model. In 2007 its now head of employee engagement Barbara Hobday launched the Inter-Retail Bank Diversity Network. Formed with help from the Involvement Participation Association, it is aimed at HR staff themselves. But it is not only for those in Abbey's HR department; it is also for HR staff at HBOS, Lloyds-TSB, Bradford & Bingley (now part of Abbey's owner, Santander), Alliance and Leicester, Nationwide and RBS. "We meet quarterly," says Hobday, "to share best practice in employee relations. Issues we've raised include how to bring innovation into trade union relationships and gender and diversity procedures and how to implement new Acas rules."

According to Hobday, the aim is "share approaches and benchmark", and there have been no issues about confidentiality or revealing sensitive information. "These are just areas of mutual interest we can share experiences on," she added. And she believes the network has already cemented itself as a crucial learning tool. "We believe different experiences and perspectives better enable us to understand and serve customers. This is far better than a training course. The richness of other professionals talking about stuff takes this to another level."

What is crucial, says Hobday, is that this group is different from the many casual networking groups (most industries have lots), because the learning potential is the main reason for getting together. Similar groups are springing up all the time. The CEO of integrated marketing agency Loewy, Charlie Hoult, (once described as the 'next Martin Sorrell') recently formed Castaway, a group where a member company receives staff from rival brand and marketing agencies to discuss latest trends, problems they are encountering, as well as solutions. Hoult says: "These get-togethers give busy people the chance of valuable learning."

Could this be a model for your organisation? Hoult thinks so: "Learning doesn't have to take place in the classroom," he says. "The best training is what you learn from other people doing the same job in rival companies."

NOT SO CO-OPERATIVE

2008: A man who once worked for Intel and then jumped ship to join AMD was accused of stealing his former employer's chip secrets. Federal detectives allege they discovered 19 CAD designs and more than 100 pages of confidential Intel documentation

2007: Two Toyota engineers based at its Sant'Agata Bolognese wind tunnel were convicted of stealing secrets from Ferrari after Toyota's car looked suspiciously like the Italian marque's at the start of the 2003 season

2005: Apple CEO Steve Jobs is believed to have planted evidence of a fake product in order to ferret out a mole operating within the company

2004: Marks & Spencer reveals it is investigating spying on the phone records of CEO Stuart Rose at the height of a takeover battle

2003: Lockheed Martin sues rival Boeing for allegedly securing documents relating to its bid for a $2 billion military rocket programme in 1998

2001: Procter & Gamble (P&G) agrees to settle out of court with rival Unilever over allegations of corporate spying. P&G is accused of going through Unilever's rubbish

CORPORATE RAIDS - CLIFFORD CHANCE

Why? Why would the world's fourth largest legal firm, Clifford Chance, want to invite all its rivals in to learn how it goes about designing and implementing its e-learning strategy - one of the few remaining areas in which it can have a competitive advantage? Kevin Bell, academy manager, e-learning, Clifford Chance, admits at first it doesn't sound like a sensible thing to do. "It's a bit novel, and the first thing you think of is whether this is the right thing for us to do from a 'trade secrets' standpoint. But the point of this is that as well as informing and educating the people who attend, we feel we also get some benefit out of it. We wouldn't run this (day long event), if we didn't think we could also learn something new. Just hearing what problems others have, is food for thought, and better than any training course we could run.

How? Bell is hosting what event management company Informatology - which set this up - calls a 'corporate raid'. Bell and his colleagues present some of the issues Clifford Chance is currently going through, and the 'raiders' - those attending - sit and soak up valuable information they can take back to their own organisation. The event lasts for a day, and is a mix of formal and informal sessions, with plenty of questions and answers, debating and cross-examinations. HR magazine sat in on this corporate raid to see just how they worked.

Who attended? No doubt the originality of the concept was what helped attract everyone and anyone in e-learning in the legal sector. Delegates included Suzanne Fine, global head of knowledge and learning, Linklaters; Faye Parry, global head of sales and service learning, Thomson Reuters; Helen Molloy, learning consultant, Rolls-Royce; Phillipa Smith, learning and development manager, Pinsent Masons; and Bella Marshall, head of legal professional development, Herbert Smith.

What happened? "I'm here for a 'corporate raid'," I say to the receptionist as I enter Clifford Chance's resplendent Canary Wharf HQ. I get a strange look, but someone else knows what I mean, and directs me to the second floor. Slowly a stream of nervous-looking e-learners enter. Eventually they introduce themselves, and say what they hope to get out of it. "We're looking forward to hearing about what you're all doing too," announces Clifford Chance's global head of e-learning, Judith Clarke, to the audience. Various presentations ensue but the assembled delegates are interested in hearing specific results, names of respected suppliers and the experiences of their hosts in doing the types of learning they do. The demand for information to justify their day out of the office was definitely apparent. Delegates were most interested in how Clifford Chance defined its competency framework, and how learning is aligned to it. They were also interested in the ratio of classroom-video-e-learning courses; how buy-in for learning is achieved; how courses are created rather than taken off-the-shelf; and how to extend the reach of e-learning. Breakout sessions later in the day also enabled individual problems to be discussed and solutions to be worked out.

WAS IT USEFUL?

Tara Scanlan, learning and development manager, Ashurst, says:

"The company raid at Clifford Chance promised to be a great opportunity to see 'under the bonnet' of another organisation operating in the same sector as mine. The host's approach was refreshingly open and honest, and this led to constructive and meaningful conversations about the e-learning topics that were on the agenda. Most seminars or public events are sponsored or delivered by vendors/parties that have a vested interest or agenda. This event was a great format for honest, unbiased discussion of e-learning, practical difficulties involved with implementation and the sharing of tips for success. I would definitely consider attending such an event again."

PUBLIC RELATIONS AND BRANDING INFORMATION EXCHANGE

Omar Jamil is an account manager at boutique public relations company Velvet PR. He is also co-president of the Facebook London PR and Branding Group. Set up in 2007, it enables PR and marketing professionals to connect and share industry news, issues and trends, and has 795 UK members. Any PR agency can send staff to learn from each other's experiences. He says: "Our events tend to be group discussions, usually with guest speakers kicking things off. Attendance fluctuates between 20 and 50 people and, interestingly, not all come from marketing backgrounds. We've had lawyers, bankers, recruitment professionals and entrepreneurs attend. We've also held a few larger panel discussions - including one on the growing role of digital and social networking within PR held in partnership with press release distribution firm PR Newswire." Jamil runs about 10 meetings a year, with learning being the main reason for attending: "Events focus on relevant issues facing the industry, ranging from the overlap between PR and branding to the emergence of opinion leaders in social networks. Last year we held an event together with PR recruitment specialist Hanson Search on what PR and marcoms professionals need to do to survive the recession. Our most recent meeting was on what brands can do in response to the new economic climate." He adds: "The difference between our meetings and formal training courses is the personal interaction. By keeping the atmosphere relaxed and informal, people are more inclined to share ideas and views, as well as voice possible issues or reservations. Because many attendees are from other sectors, we've secured interesting insights on external perceptions of PR or branding and how things can be improved."

LINKS BETWEEN COLLEGE AND COMPANY

Rob Moyle, a mechanics tutor at Truro College, went to work at KW Autos to forge closer links. He had been involved with the company for some time, having kept his hand in the trade to maintain his MOT licence. KW Autos found the experience valuable because they can tell the local college exactly what they want from new recruits being trained. The benefit for students coming straight from education is that they are more closely skilled in what they need. Moyle says: "A big part of a student succeeding is matching a graduate's personality with the right workplace. If a garage has a particularly boisterous atmosphere it will suit some of my more outgoing students but not others."