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Critical questions for collaboration: Farming Together Project Team Leader Amanda Scott has compiled a set of self-check questions so you can see if collaboration is the right approach for you right now.

Collaborative business models can be a powerful tool enabling primary producers to work together and enhance their business position by creating opportunity to, for example, achieve economies of scale, lock-in premium prices, reduce input costs, or secure better access to markets that improve the bottom line.

Collaborative models, such as cooperatives have long been and continue to be a valuable approach for building farm business resilience against competitive pressures in a global economy, climatic extremes, and even unexpected events such as COVID-19.

A well-known example of a collaborative business model is the Norco Dairy Cooperative, where Norco has been delivering benefits directly back to its members for 125 years. Collaborative businesses like NORCO are about farmers working together, and by sharing resources and goals are able achieve more than could be done alone. NORCO puts it members’ (the farmers’) interest first and the result is a win-win for all.

But working collaboratively is not always a golden ticket to business success. While successful collaboration is known to deliver innovative and productive results, and build business resilience, collaboration is not easy to achieve and even harder to sustain. Furthermore, failed collaboration can be messy and expensive. Collaboration is high risk for high reward.

So, you’ve heard about, or you’re thinking about the benefits of collaboration, but you’re asking, is a collaborative business model the right approach for me, right now?

Collaborative business models are not business as usual; they require a different way of thinking, behaving and working. While intuition and common sense can go a long way, it is helpful to have some information to guide your decision-making and actions. At Farming Together, over the last four years we have seen some great collaborative success stories which we plan to share with you in the newsletters ahead, but we have also seen examples of those which haven’t succeeded. Some of the reasons these collaborative ventures didn’t succeed was either that that collaboration was not the right approach in the end, or it was too early for the group to formalise their collaborative business.

Here is our list of self-check questions so you can see if collaboration is the right approach for you right now.

Is collaboration the right model for my business?

1.       Is the business problem / challenge I am trying to address so big or complex that I cannot solve it alone?

If the problem you are facing is beyond your capacity to solve alone, and is shared by others, then a collaborative arrangement could be the answer. By working with others in a collaborative way you can share ideas, knowledge and skills to develop the innovative solutions required.

For a problem that is not as complex or interconnected, others forms of business working arrangements can be more suitable.

Yes– A collaboration could be right for you (go to Q2.)

 

No- Explore other forms of business working arrangements

2.       Is there interdependence between me and my collaborators?

The greater the interdependency in a collaboration the more suitable a collaborative approach. Interdependency is effectively the recognition of a need to work together in a way in which the parties achieve a ‘win:win’ outcome: e.g. I need you as much as you need me and we may bring differing but equal contributions to the business. If an arrangement is dependent rather than interdependent i.e. I need you more than you need me, power imbalance can quickly and easily undermine collaborative goals.

Yes- A collaboration could be right for you (go to Q3.)

 

No- Explore other forms of business working arrangements

Are we ready to formalise our collaborative business?

3.       Does the group have a collective vision?

Because collaboration is about bringing people together to find new and creative solutions to complex problems, different motivations, opinions, drivers are likely to exist. At the heart of collaboration is finding ways to move forward together towards a common vision with the recognition that all differences may not be able to be resolved, but the overall goal is more important than individual difference.

What can happen in collaboration that comes together too quickly, or in a situation where a group lacks the necessary facilitation expertise, is  that a  ‘collection vision’ can be built but in reality, that vision is not shared by all because not everyone has had positions heard or considered.

This can result in the ‘loudest’ person/ people in the room having their vision as the collective vision. When business activity begins, individual or self interest may end up dominating as not all partners have bought into the vision.

Yes – You could be ready to formalise your collaboration (go to 4.)

 

No – Take some time to build a shared vision, you can engage an expert facilitator to help your group do this.

4.       Do all members have a willingness to change?

Collaboration is not ‘business as usual’. You must be willing to share resources, but also power and authority, and be open to new ideas and new ways of doing things.

Change, or even the suggestion of change can be uncomfortable if you have done things a certain way for a long time. Participants must have trust between each other and build the commitment to the collective vision and approach in order to be willing to take the necessary risks and find new ways of working together.

Yes- You could be ready to formalise your collaboration (go to 5.)

 

No– Take some time to identity the barriers for change with your members or consider finding other members who are more open to change.

5.       Is there 100% collective commitment?

Free riders and those whose commitment to the group comes second to their own self-interest can quickly erode collective trust resulting in the downfall of a collaborative business.

Many of the Farming Together participants flagged member commitment as being the most essential factor in collaboration start up and success.

Most said be prepared to spend more time working in the collaboration  (pro bono) than you expect because things don’t always go to plan and you need to be willing to go above and beyond to push through problems together. 100% committed to shared goals means a willingness to give up some of your own individual needs to work toward the bigger vision.

 

Yes– If you have said yes to all these questions it sounds like you are ready to formalise your collaboration

 

No– Commitment to the group first is so important, and cannot be compromised on.

Choose partners who you know will be willing to go above and beyond.

 

Collaborative business model are a great way for primary producers to stay small but think and act big. If you are interested in finding out more about starting and building a collaborative business take a look at the resources on the Farming Together website.

 

Amanda Scott

Amanda Scott is the Program Manager of Farming Together, and is currently completing her PhD on sustaining collaborative networks in Australian agriculture.