Opportunity knocks: the digital promise of cross-sector collaboration

Accenture’s Tim Cooper, Archie Maitland and Matthew Robinson open up the prospects of digital capabilities for collaborative exploration.

Collaboration between the public and non-profit sectors on the one hand and the private sector on the other has most often occurred at the fringes of business: through philanthropic programmes, CSR initiatives or experimental nods to the appetites of other stakeholders. But is something changing? New Accenture research suggests that cross-sector collaboration may be moving to the center— thanks largely to digital technology.

We asked 500 business leaders around the world about their growth strategies for the next five years. What they told us suggests that what was once regarded as unconventional is now becoming the norm. One-third is planning to pursue growth opportunities in—or in collaboration with—the public and non-profit sectors. And an even larger share—two-thirds—are looking to entirely different private-sector industries for growth.

What’s behind this new openness to growth via collaboration and diversification? At least three factors suggest themselves. First, fiscal retrenchment in many economies is opening up new opportunities for business to play a role in the delivery of public services. Second, the appeal of ‘shared value’, in which companies seek to enhance their own competitiveness while also advancing economic and social goals, is helping to generate imaginative business cases. Third, the advent of near-ubiquitous digital technology is enabling and driving multi-sector collaboration.

‘Digital’ (social media, analytics, mobile and cloud computing) has made it easier to enter new industries and to collaborate with non-traditional partners. Consider consumer retail giants Walmart Stores Inc. and Procter & Gamble, which have both entered the education market by partnering with the online provider edX (founded by Harvard and MIT) to develop vocational training courses in topics such as supply chain management and computer science. Similarly, electronics giant Samsung Group has collaborated with Independa, a care provider for the elderly, to develop an online platform that provides a vital link to carers and family.

What is the evidence that digital capabilities are providing the basis for these partnerships? When we asked business leaders to name the enablers of their future growth, 80 percent cited at least one digital capability, such as social media, mobile and analytics. However, these leaders see digital as necessary but not sufficient. Indeed, the most popular individual enabler of partnerships for growth was ‘personal networks and relationships’. It may be a digital world, but it’s also one where old-fashioned social skills and social capital are paramount.

Equally significant is the way in which businesses are seeking new growth. Collaborative exploration rather than outright ownership appears to be the favoured approach. Seventy-eight percent of survey respondents plan to pursue growth in new areas by using flexible forms of collaboration, such as strategic alliances (63 percent) and joint ventures (46 percent). A smaller share (39 percent) plan to employ mergers and acquisitions. For example, two digital startups, Charing Systems Ltd. and Black Pear Software Ltd., have worked in collaboration with NHS Moorfields Eye Hospital in London to develop a virtual glaucoma centre allowing for the remote collection and diagnosis of glaucoma patients’ data through tablet computers.

For public agencies and non-profits, the message seems clear: businesses see growth opportunities across the economy. They want to collaborate with new partners to help realise these opportunities. Public agencies and non-profits have the opportunity to turn businesses’ appetite for collaboration to their advantage. The starting point is to ask: How can we advance our mission through the scale, investment and expertise that business can bring?

We are already seeing examples of private-sector investment effectively advancing collaborative initiatives. Social-impact bonds, in which financial returns are linked to improvements in social outcomes, provide a case in point. But realising these opportunities will require partnership skills and willpower on both sides. Employee interchange programmes, leadership mentoring and cross-sector training courses can help provide the platform for mutual learning and understanding. Also, leaders in all sectors will need a change in perspective: to start seeing the interests of business not as self-serving but as society-serving. Business leaders are knocking on the door. Are public agencies and non-profits ready to answer?


Tim Cooper is a senior research manager at the Accenture Institute for High Performance, where Archie Maitland is a research associate and Matthew Robinson is managing director of policy research. They are all based in London. 

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