Collaborative business networks: 10 questions to ask

All collaborative business networks are not equal: some are solid networks, some are genuinely trying to get there and some are mere networks of convenience.


In Virtual Enterprise Networks allow business scale through virtual collaboration, I discussed the Virtual Enterprise Network (VEN) as an important new collaborative enterprise which small businesses are using to achieve ‘virtual scale’ without sacrificing control and agility.

A key differentiator of VENs from other types of business network (physically co-located or virtual) is that the member companies have made real and serious investments in creating a collaborative network enterprise and all this implies.

Despite what a network might call itself many business networks are little more than loose associations of companies who barely know each other and have not invested in learning to collaborate together.

These kind of opportunistic business networks believe that when they win the first customer contract that will be time enough to learn to collaborate.

In the real world however this is not something that discerning and demanding customer organisations are likely to give them the chance to prove!

It is important therefore that if you are a prospective customer of a VEN or you are a small business thinking of joining a VEN to have a way to check-out how serious a collaborative enterprise such a network is.

Ten questions for assessing a collaborative business network

1. Network Mobilisation

Has the network completed a network mobilisation process to align member goals, inputs and expectations?

2. Management Resources

Does the network have dedicated network management resources in the key areas of overall network leadership and administration/technology support?

3. Ground Rules

Has the network agreed Ground Rules which all members must observe to ensure the interests of all members are fairly and transparently governed?

4. Broker & Sales Plan

Is there a dedicated 'Broker' responsible for identifying sales opportunities for the network in line with an agreed business development plan?

5. Capability Map

Have the companies aggregated and analysed their capabilities to identify core/quick win areas and gaps where new members may needed?

6. Regular Tender Feeds

Does the network have access to an adequate supply of live tender information backed up by a systematic process for qualifying and processing the opportunities which they should go after?

7. Affiliate Management

Does the network have a process for managing new and affiliate companies to ensure they are properly considered for bids and have good regular information which keeps them informed about network activities and opportunities? Without this affiliates will soon become alienated and leave - they will feel like economy passengers compared to the core members who they may perceive as travelling business class!

8. Innovation & Alliances Plan

Does the network have a committed strategy and plan for collaborative product development (generally involving an applied research group/project funding), external product sourcing and the formation of useful alliances with other networks?

9. Common Processes

Does the network have common and regularly updated processes covering the execution, management and reporting/liaison of internal and customer-facing projects?

10. Collaborative Legal Agreements

Has the network developed some professional legal agreements to underpin collaborative working in key areas such as Intellectual Property, non-performance and risk/rewards?

Analysing a network’s responses

If a network can answer ‘Yes’ supported by evidence for five or more of these questions then there is a good chance that they are serious about operating as a collaborative network.

If the network can say ‘Yes’ to seven or more then you are very lucky and have found a very strong network which you can work with.

If the network can only say ‘Yes’ to a couple of the questions then you have a network which probably should be avoided for one of two very different reasons:

  1. a network in its early stages which needs more time to develop or

  2. a ‘network of convenience’ which is unlikely to be a good strategic partner


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Ken, I was wondering if there was a pre-collaboration "trigger event" that indicated to the various companies, and potential network participating companies, that there was a NEED for a network in the first place! Might there be some instances where the "core infrastructure" of the network is essentially pre-existing, and then the network builds two way benefits very quickly (i.e. I have good information, which you could use for product development; I have good sales contacts; I have a distribution channel etc.etc.). It also seems to me that in the world of 2.0 "everything" that the rules of virtual collaboration might become even more important.... So, I guess I am interested in seeing what the "getting things started elements are"....


This is the fundamental problem of networks - companies don't know they need them until them have experienced them and few companies have enough insight to create a network speculatively. A trigger event can be an upcoming contract but this usually just produces a 'network of convenience' - god help them if they actually win the contract they have formed for! So in my view the trigger event is generally an economic agency who has identified the benefits of networking and clustering who provide resources to incubate a network.



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