Broken business relationships: The dark side of collaboration

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Last week’s very public divorce between Ford Motor Co. and Bridgestone/Firestone, which terminated a 95-year relationship that began with the Model T, got me thinking about high-profile business marriages that end in heartache.

Fractured business relationships are nothing new; U.S. industrial history is littered with them.

What has changed is how the lines between buyer and seller have blurred. Deep collaboration is the future of commerce, arguably unavoidable for any company with long-term plans.

But there is a dark side to these tight relationships. Take Microsoft Corp. and IBM Corp. In the late 1980s, they jointly worked on OS/2, a graphical user interface and the replacement to DOS. The partners’ agendas soon diverged and their marketing efforts clashed and confused everyone. IBM positioned OS/2 as the future of all operating systems, while Microsoft talked about OS/2 as a high-end, server-based system. By late 1991, the two had officially and angrily split; in 1992, Microsoft released Windows 3.1. Two years later, IBM took a run at the mass consumer market with OS/2 Warp 3.0. We all know who won that battle.

In fact, the Microsoft-IBM case was a signpost of things to come, telegraphing the way modern companies would collaborate on what might be called a subatomic level. No longer "buyer" and "seller," they were now "business partners," providing unprecedented access to each other’s data, processes and customers.

"If you’re really going to take full value of e-commerce, level one is transactions and auctions, but level two is redefining the business process … and one of the central features is real-time collaborative product engineering," said David Cole, director of the Center for Automotive Research, part of the Environmental Research Institute of Michigan.

Cole is not naïve. "You know the saying, ‘Better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all’? Yes, you’re more vulnerable when you create these relations, but [if you don’t] you can miss out on great opportunities."

Would closer collaboration between Ford and Firestone/Bridgestone have averted the flaws that led to some 6,000 reported accidents? (This could be one of the few positive lessons to emerge when the car company and the tire maker meet, as now seems likely, in a prolonged court battle, made more complex because of the amount of design and engineering information they shared.)

The broader lesson is this: Deep collaboration may be inevitable, even desirable, but it also has a dark side.

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