Collaborating to compete

Collaboration means cooperation, not just grudging cooperation, but efforts exerted together in pursuit of a common goal. Collaboration is not new per se. It has been going on in the business world for a long time. But I think collaboration has come of age, as a recognized, advocated and practiced way of doing business.

Examples of successful collaboration in business abound, from the seemingly trivial to large-scale projects. In one recent example publicized by Plastics News, a purveyor of foaming technology for injection molding asserted that single-digit percentage savings in part weight could be accomplished if the technology was retrofitted to a project, with double-digit savings attainable by collaboration in advance.

It has become commonplace for plastics processing equipment, particularly auxiliary equipment, to be marketed on the basis of a collaborative review with the prospective customer of what they have and what they need. The practice of using a take-it-or-leave-it Request for Quotation (RFQ) is perhaps more common with discrete pieces of equipment, such as an injection machine or a robot, but even there, one can’t really manufacture anything with just an injection machine, or just a robot. One typically needs a mold, a chiller, maybe a conveyor, and in any case, something of a system which could well be evaluated collaboratively.

Collaborating doesn’t mean that one doesn’t compete. It is a different way of competing. You collaborate with your customers, and compete with your competitors. An enlightened customer, or even just an average customer, comes to appreciate the help that a collaborating supplier brings to the table. Either overtly or in more subtle ways, a prospect begins to appreciate an equipment supplier who brings more to the table than the desire to squeeze the last nickel out of him.

But how do we make the transition from an aggressive competitive attitude to a collaborative attitude? I have personally seen it in a very small, interpersonal college–age setting, particularly in cooperative learning of computer software and the use of ever-proliferating digital devices. The notion that if I ever tell anybody anything I might be cheating has gone out the window. Professors assign group projects and conduct entire courses on a group basis. In that context everybody’s learning success depends on everybody else’s participation to the best of their ability. This is collaboration.

A collaborative environment is premised on the notion that if I need to know something, I can foolishly spend two hours extracting it from some data source, or I could just walk down the hall and ask somebody. It’s not cheating to learn how to make better use of your computer. It is an axiom of computing that knowledge is distributed unevenly. Non-nerds know some sophisticated things, and some nerds don’t know some simple things. Neglecting to collaborate yields absurd results.

I have seen collaboration ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous in technology-based in office settings. There may be no accounting for this stuff, but it happens. In one ironic incident, two of the most computer-competent people in a Denver office were fussing over a keyboard trying to get a CD out of its drive by getting the CD tray to open. They couldn’t get the tray to open. In desperation (truly) they asked me. I can’t even remember when I learned this, but the tray opens (on a Mac at least) if you hit the upper-right-most key on the keyboard. I did that, the tray opened and they got their disk.

A second episode involved an industrial-scale laser printer reportedly costing $12,000, that just balked in a publication office one day, and refused to function. Well, what to do? Call the service technician, wait a day or two, pay big bucks for a service call? That’s not what we did. We collaborated, at least sort of. We called the most tech-savvy character in the office away from his desk and, figuratively at least, threw the problem in his lap. (Some of you know what is coming.) He stared at the printer briefly, turned the electrical power off, turned it on again, tested to be sure the printer was working, and walked away.
That was embarrassing. Never again, I swore. Next time I can turn it off and turn it on again myself (In the computer world, it is called “rebooting.”) We had plenty of other things to collaborate on. That one I could take care of myself.

In the plastics-processing world, collaboration has a lot to offer. The lowest price on anything doesn’t matter if the system doesn’t work. Collaboration holds the promise of processors getting, at fair prices, what they actually need and can benefit from.

–Merle R. Snyder

The Plastics Technology Drying, Conveying and Extrsion Knowledge Centers are sponsored by Novatec, whose personnel check each section for technical accuracy. This article is not a statement of Novatec policy.