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No man is an island: The importance of precompetitive collaboration

With many businesses finding themselves under increasing pressure, it is arguably more important than ever that commercial operations are finely tuned, giving companies the best possible chance of thriving against the harsh commercial landscape.

This added pressure may have come about as a result of any number of factors – the financial crash, weaker consumer spending power or, in terms of coffee specifically, an outbreak of leaf rust blighting plantations and destroying output, for example.

Competitive spirit

One way of alleviating this pressure is to be sure to stay ahead of the game. A healthy dose of competitive spirit can ensure firms always remain a step ahead of peers and among the frontrunners in their respective market.

Without any competition or drive to surpass rivals, the trading landscape would be pretty bleak indeed. At the end of the day, it is this healthy competition that inspires those involved in any business to better themselves, to learn more and to continue to be the best they can be.

Problem-solving together

However, before the competitive urges kick in, it has been argued that – perhaps conversely – investing in precompetitive collaboration is in fact the way to go about good business. That is, people must look at their industry and work together to solve any problems that may exist or overcome universal challenges, before competition between the very same parties can really come into the equation in a positive way. 

By doing this, a sector as a whole can be strengthened, which promotes better practice and ultimately encourages industries and their constituent players to up their game.

Why wouldn't people want to?

This idea of problem-solving together doesn't come without issues in itself. The more people that come together to address obstacles and overcome hurdles, the greater number potential solutions there may be. Many hands make light work, but many cooks can indeed spoil the broth, so the saying goes. Collaboration becomes an all the more delicate operation when several parties get involved.

In any business, there is always a natural human instinct to play cards close to the chest and to vehemently guard trade secrets or industry contacts. Especially when it comes to a specialty product such as many coffees, no importer or roaster wants their rivals to know their secret sauce.

But perhaps we could all learn something from the idea of preemptive collaboration. After all, few industries can say that people matter as much to its success as the coffee trade.

It can be an enormous feat of coordination. This is where organisations such as the 4C Association and the creation of farming cooperatives come into play, as they – and other similar bodies – bring together coffee farmers, producers, importers, exporters, traders, experts and stakeholders, for example, for the greater good of the coffee industry as a whole. 

The Fairtrade Foundation – one of the most widely recognised and fastest-growing ethical certifications in the world – is founded on the importance of people and bringing individuals together.

What's the point?

Writing in Roast Magazine, coffee expert Benjamin Myers explains how he came across an interview in The Specialty Coffee Chronicle with Rick Peyser, director of social advocacy and supply chain community outreach at Green Mountain Coffee Roasters and considered by some to be the originator of the trend of competitive collaboration within the coffee industry.

When asked in the interview what Mr Peyser would like to see change in the sector, he said: "I would like to see small-scale producers of fine coffee receive a better return on their investment so that they, their children and future generations have the same opportunity to advance in life as those who consume enticing cups of their coffee. I believe the path to realise this vision starts with precompetitive collaborative efforts within our industry."

Earlier this year, Mr Myers – the owner and founder of 1000 Faces Coffee, which won a 2013 Good Food Award – met the pioneer, who summed up the value of the concept to him pretty succinctly. "Essentially, it’s about bringing people together to make an impact larger than you can accomplish on your own."