As the environmental and social challenges increase, organizations find themselves in the need of shaping alliances to work together towards a better world.

Jaap Boonstra

Collaborating in alliances is increasing enormously, and that's a good thing. To respond to global challenges in climate, health and wealth distribution, organizations are looking for new ways of working together. Shaping that collaboration is a dynamic process full of exciting moments. 

In recent decades we have seen a growth in business alliances. They want to strengthen their innovative power or contribute to a better environment. There are also more and more values-driven alliances that want to contribute to a better, just and sustainable society. Alliances are an appropriate form to work on economic and social change. In this way they contribute to a sustainable future. Many alliances start small from an idea of a few initiators, and they often grow into global partnerships that contribute to a better world. 

Working together on social problems 

Alliances are important forms of cooperation if we want to tackle problems that affect us all. For instance, the shortage of homes requires cooperation between housing corporations, municipalities, contractors, financiers and local residents. Schools cannot solve the teacher shortage alone, but only together with parents, teacher training colleges, volunteers and municipalities. To keep neighborhoods safe and habitable, neighborhood residents, police, and housing corporations seek each other out. In elderly care, district nurses work together with nursing homes, rehabilitation centres, hospitals, general practitioners and informal carers. 

Inspirational examples 

The Global Alliance for Banking on Values (GABV) is an alliance of values-driven banks that use finance as a means to achieve sustainable development for people, communities and their environment. The Global Alliance in Management Education (CEMS) is a global alliance of universities, businesses, social partners, students and alumni dedicated to educating future leaders with civic, social and global awareness.

Many alliances start small from an idea of a few initiators and grow into global partnerships

Alliance lifecycle 

People in alliances find each other, share a dream, visualize a mission and vision, and formulate guiding principles that direct action. Due to the diversity of members, building and evolving alliances is not easy. This can be deduced from two case studies by the GABV and CEMS that go through the four life phases of alliances: forming, building, developing and evolving alliances. These four stages are not linear stages in the alliance life cycle. It is a dynamic and continuous pattern full of paradoxes and tensions. 

Four stages of development 

The first step is the forming stage when the foundations for the alliance are laid. It is the phase of getting to know each other and exploring possibilities to strengthen each other.  
After this, it is time for the building stage to expand the alliance based on the initiative of the first members. This raises questions about appropriate forms of cooperation and the sharing of knowledge and experience.  

The third phase concerns the development of an alliance. The partnership will now focus on setting more ambitious goals and delivering results. Now it is about bringing together ambitions and achieving a common goal. In this phase, visible results are important to continue to invest in the collaboration.  

Finally, in the evolving phase, the alliance faces the challenge of continuing to innovate when results fail and to adapt when the context changes and pressure increases. In time, the visible importance of the alliance may decrease, as will the will to continue to invest energy in it. 

Handling tensions and paradoxes 

Identifying tensions is a precondition for successful cooperation in values-driven alliances. In total, we have identified twelve paradoxes that help to handle the dynamics in the life stages of alliances. A paradox consists of two opposing perspectives that are each meaningful and defensible. The trick is to position yourself in the field of tension between the two perspectives and to continuously balance between the two extremes.  

In alliances, a fundamental paradox is the tension between trust and control

A fundamental paradox is the tension between trust and control. Without trust, no cooperation is achieved, while control systems help to ensure that the trust that has been built up is not betrayed. Recognizing paradoxes in creating and developing alliances can help members in the alliance deal with problems, tensions, and strategic choices. 

Everyone can participate 

Many students want to commit themselves to a better world. In this book they will find inspiring examples and useful tips to get started. Directors, supervisors and alliance managers are invited to set their sights on a positive and sustainable future and play a role in values-driven alliances. 

This article is based on Jaap Boonstra's recent book, written together with Marcos Eguiguren: Alliances for Sustainable Futures (Edward Elgar, 2023)

All written content is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.