People-Centric Strategic Alliances for Success in VUCA Environments
In This Article
Get introduced to strategic alliances, understand their value, see some examples and learn some ways that you can employ people-centric strategic alliances for optimal outcomes amid the contemporary VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) global business environment.
What are strategic alliances?
Strategic alliances are strategic tools that, conceivably, should be among the top priorities of C-Level organization leaders and, with rigorous planning, execution and nurturing, serve as critical drivers of organizational profits and growth (Global Strategy Group, 2017).
Strategic alliances embody formal business relationships between two or more parties sharing similar short- or long-term objectives for achieving the alignment of the parties' complementary offerings toward a common goal (Richardson, 2021). Some strategic alliances may entail combining two or more businesses' resources to form a new entity. Yet, the goal of other strategic alliances might be to strengthen one or more of the participating parties somehow.
Effective leaders are behooved to underpin their ideas and any subsequent action plans with strategic alliances, partnerships, and supportive audiences (Reed Markham, n.d.). Several types of strategic alliances exist, which can determine the value that could emerge from these relationships.
What value do strategic alliances bring?
Organizations spanning numerous sectors have proven the value of strategic alliances while continually reaping mutual advantages, desirable financial outcomes and the transformations of businesses and their operating models (Global Strategy Group, 2017).
The value strategic allies can attain during these partnerships may vary widely, depending on motives (e.g., expanding reach, scaling, reducing risk and more) and the contributable competencies (e.g., cultural, technical, operational, strategic, etc.). Organizations that engage in strategic alliances are empowered to contribute their competencies and resources to benefit strategic allies while also gaining access to their complementary competencies and resources.
Strategic alliances may enable earlier securement of new opportunities by filling voids that organization leaders otherwise might defer and can help organizations realize strategic objectives sooner than if they could do so independently (British Academy of Management, 2021; Richardson, 2021).
Though several variations of strategic alliances exist, the focus here is people-centricity as a novel lens to view strategic alliances and the value all allies stand to gain. Let's look at an example.
Target & Techstars: A business-to-business strategic alliance example
In 2016, Target engaged in an incubator-based alliance with Techstars, a global startup accelerator providing funding and mentorship to tech startups. This alliance afforded the selected startups opportunities to receive mentorship from some prominent players in tech and retail, investments from one or more of 1,000 venture capitalists (and Target), and pilot relationships with Target. The results were Target's investment into some of the startups and piloting a startup's software solution (to manage backend operations); Techstars accomplished its mission: to create positive social and economic change by making innovation accessible to all (Allabound, n.d.; Techstars, 2021).
Strategic alliances for success amid constant environmental change
In this context, environmental change encompasses multiple facets of an organization's internal and external environments (i.e., social, technological, economic, environmental, political, legal and ethical; aka. the "STEEPLE"). The COVID-19 pandemic, combined with widespread environmental change, has altered the profile of collaboration structures and compounded the necessity of organizational resilience, strategic agility and flexibility (British Academy of Management, 2021). All of which can be facilitated through effective deployment and maintenance of people-centric strategic alliances.
People are the foundational component of business and, without people, no strategic initiative would exist, let alone flourish. People comprise organizations' internal and external customers, clients, and partners. Along with people comes a myriad of individual experiences and external influences. The prior truth endures notwithstanding the constantly-changing business landscape.
With this awareness, organization leaders are behooved to maintain intentional consideration of and purposeful attention to the human element of business (i.e., how people are affected and can affect). Thus, leaders would do well to partner strategically with people, not just with other companies, and to develop and maintain tight feedback loops to pursue genuine relationships of trust and empathy. Doing so can contribute positively to effectively achieving long-term objectives.
How can people-centric strategic alliances address emerging issues?
One of the most prevalent contemporary business issues is determining when and how to bring workforces back into shared physical workspaces due to increasingly widespread COVID-19 vaccinations. Return-to-work strategies will affect and be affected by countless variables from now to 2030 and beyond.
Irrespective of pre-existing strategic initiatives, the modern VUCA environment challenges organization leaders to consider present-day environmental factors. Leaders must purposefully anticipate the implications of the decisions being made internally and externally to their organizations (i.e., how people will be affected).
People-centricity at the STEEPLE
Through people-centric strategic alliances, leaders can learn (from the people) a wealth of otherwise inaccessible information, which could make the difference between an organization's triumph or detriment. Accordingly, leaders must strategize around the STEEPLE. In other words, leaders must strategize mindfully with purposeful consideration of social, technological, economic, environmental, political, legal and ethical factors and their prospective consequences.
To assess and begin to resolve the contemporary issue of returning to work, organization leaders would benefit from actively seeking insights from key employee groups to learn how they are affected by (and potentially could affect) the current influx of environmental changes.
A study had identified five key employee groups (i.e., women, front-line workers, hourly male workers, long-tenured employees and people of color) as critical influencers of organizational post-COVID-19 recovery (The 5 Employee Groups That Can Make or Break Your Recovery From the COVID-19 Recession, 2021). Similarly, as the millennial workforce expands, especially in the tech industry, organization leaders must adjust and attend to a set of needs and concerns slightly different than that of the exiting baby boomers (Managing Millennials, 2021).
Gaining insights from said groups and others is critical for the effective navigation of issues (e.g., returning to work post-COVID-19). However, the employee experience tells only a part of the story; leaders must seek supplemental information from other areas of the environment, searching for signals of change (e.g., horizon scanning).
A plethora of research exists to attest to the importance and benefits of organizations consistently and effectively completing one simple yet complex task — listening to their people.
People-centric strategic alliances in action
WWT is an example in which the organization prioritizes gathering and addressing feedback from its members. WWT effectively demonstrates, through numerous strategic partnerships, its recognition of the advantages of business-to-business strategic alliances. Nevertheless, the organization has been operationalizing people-centricity for many years.
WWT has established a viable framework upon which the firm intends to enhance its people-centric strategic alliances continually. WWT's people-centric strategic alliance framework includes, but is not limited to, the following elements:
- A dedicated Diversity & Inclusion team who works closely with HR and executive leadership.
- Listening Tours in which upper-level organization leaders engage in informal conversations with employees at all levels to better understand their perspectives and experiences.
- WWT Storytellers, which is a platform to build awareness, empathy and connections through individuals' real stories about their personal experiences.
- Integrated Management & Leadership training in which the focus is awareness, unconscious bias and difficult conversations.
- Employee Resource Groups serving as additional platforms for listening, learning and strengthening diverse connections.
- Diversity & Inclusion-focused recruiting, retention and development strategies.
- Community Outreach to support organizations that provide education and career preparation, promote physical and mental wellness, and provide human services to address society’s greatest needs.
- Supplier Diversity commitments to help develop and sustain diverse sourcing strategies.
Employing the framework above has yielded for WWT desirable results, which persistently improve as time progresses (e.g., WWT has been renowned as a great place to work for the last ten years).
Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina (BCBSNC) similarly exemplifies the effectiveness of people-centric strategic alliances. The firm is committed to putting its people and its culture at the heart of everything it does (Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina Uses Data-Driven Insight to Empower Managers, n.d.). Through a combination of customized member surveys, related data analytics, series of meaningful follow-up discussions with members and strategic leverage point tweaks, BCBSNC has transformed its culture, therefore enhancing the employee experience (Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina Uses Data-Driven Insight to Empower Managers, n.d.).
Using people-centric strategic alliances (i.e., having woven into its systems some intentionality around leaders regularly engaging in meaningful conversations with members), BCBSNC had exceeded its related goals in ways it never thought possible (Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina Uses Data-Driven Insight to Empower Managers, n.d.).
What does this mean?
Strategic alliances allow organizations to achieve sooner some of their objectives that, otherwise, might have been deferred. Leaders of large and small organizations in the contemporary global VUCA environment are behooved to employ strategic alliances to help fulfill strategic goals and to navigate emerging issues successfully in their internal and external environments.
In this article, I submitted people-centricity as an atypical yet groundbreaking type of strategic alliance. In people-centric strategic alliances, organizations partner with their members to gain otherwise inaccessible insights and ultimately achieve optimal outcomes. This approach can be invaluable in anticipation of and response to emerging issues, for example, post-COVID-19 return to work and the relative implications (the STEEPLE).
So, what should you do?
Using the newfound or reinforced awareness you’ve gained while reading this article, you can:
- Resolve how and when to begin discussions around the implementation (or enrichment) of people-centric strategic alliances in your organization. Doing so will cultivate and fortify your organizations' intelligence networks, help navigate VUCA environments and support effective circumvention of environmental disruptions detected on the horizon.
- Employ people-centric strategic alliances to gain insights from organization members. This way, you can more effectively evaluate your environment from the outside in (i.e., outside of leadership ranks and outside the organization). It is important to assess your domain at the macro, meso and micro levels, all of which encapsulate and are encapsulated by people.
- Seek to establish and maintain tight feedback loops with members and attain representation of all parties persistently: before and during strategy formation and during and after strategy execution. Doing so will create a culture of equal voice and allow strategy formation to spawn from diverse perspectives.
The choice to do nothing resembles stagnation in an ever-changing environment. Rejecting the formation or enrichment of people-centric strategic alliances in your organization and continuing with business as usual may result in unsuccessful recovery from environmental disruptions due to inadequate awareness and preparedness for emerging issues.
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