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Come Together - Paul's interview in Elite Business Magazine

In a recent interview for Elite Business Magazine Paul Skinner, Founder of the Agency of the Future, shared his thoughts on collaboration, the future of organisational stratey and solving the world's greatest challenges.

Below are excerpts from the article by Josh Russell published on December 2nd 2013. If you would like to read the full article you can download a digital copy by clicking here.

The way organisations have begun to see their relationships with each other has shifted radically in recent years. Sectors that were once poles apart like business and charity now feel a great deal of attraction, realising that when they come together their power will be stronger. It’s a stark contrast to the darker days of hostility between organisations.

“When I started out, in the 1970s, charity never talked to business,” says Jonathon Porritt, founder and director of Forum for the Future – a non-profit organisation working globally with business and government to create a sustainable future – as well as former chair of the Green Party and director of Friends of the Earth. “Most of the time environmental organisations were pointing the finger of blame at businesses for being the wicked despoilers of the environment."

It’s hard to pinpoint an exact time when thoughts toward competition as the ideal state for business changed. Porritt feels the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro began, way back in 1992, to highlight the fact that working together could prove more effective than arguing amongst themselves. “There was no point in having this endless war of attrition,” Porritt says. “Business has incredible insight, resources, leadership capabilities and we need all of that deployed to help create this more sustainable world.”

There has been something of a general mood change over the last few decades; Paul Skinner, co-founder of collaborative and social marketing agency Agency of the Future, feels this can even be detected in the change of cultural touch-points. “Contrast Michael Jackson’s ‘I’m bad’ slogan with Barack Obama’s first election under the slogan: ‘yes, we can’,” he says. Comparing other 20th century mainstays with their modern equivalents – Encyclopaedia Britannica with Wikipedia, Disney with YouTube – show the extent to which organisations have come to rely on a collaborative mindset. This lends a fair amount of weight to Skinner’s statement: “We live in a time of reinvention.”

Evidently then, there are plenty of organisations and individuals seeking new ways of approaching the issues they’re facing. And there’s evidence that collaboration between relevant parties can help them deal with a volatility that would otherwise be hard to deal with.

“Whole markets can go down suddenly, with huge discontinuities for the business, and they’re also on the receiving end of rising expectations from consumers,” says Porritt. Fortunately, with an openness of conversation, organisations and enterprises can widen their oversight and are able to make smarter overall decisions. “They know what their suppliers are saying and what their business partners are thinking,” Porritt explains. “So what they’re able to do then is to marshal those insights collectively.”

“The traditional competitive model behind organisations depended upon enclosed resources,” says Skinner. Essentially, a company would amass resources like intellectual property and skilled staff and ring-fence them aggressively. This was all well and good but it meant what could be achieved was inevitably limited by the size of the company and the fight to internalise and secure assets often left the unsavoury tang of slightly unethical practices, tarnishing public perception of the brands involved.

“One of the implications of moving to collaborative rather than competitive advantage is that you’re no longer limited by your internal resources, you’re no longer limited by how big you are,” Skinner explains. “There’s a whole world of resources out there that, with the right ideas, you can access.”

A prime example of the success of this approach comes from the work of Roy Sandbach, Skinner’s co-founder at the Agency of the Future. His former role as R&D research fellow at Procter & Gamble entailed working on the corporation’s Connect and Develop programme, an initiative set into motion by CEO A.G. Lafley.

“He had essentially observed that they had 7,000 - 8,000 research scientists at Procter & Gamble but there were perhaps 2 million people in the world working on issues that were relevant to their business,” says Skinner. Making the most of this resource required opening P&G up to a more collaborative mindset, engaging rewarding staff and partner behaviour that acted in the common interest; something that has had huge ramifications for the company. “That programme made a significant contribution over that period, nearly doubling the size of what is one of the largest organisations in the world.”

“The potential for collaboration to be a force for a better economy, for a better society, is vast,” summarises Skinner. “If you look at the big issues facing the world today, from climate change to youth unemployment, there is no one person or organisation that can solve any of those challenges. They will all depend on us coming together.”

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