originally published in Forbes.com | 

Organizations often comply and certify to international standards as a normal course of business, like brushing your teeth in the morning. Or they might certify because certain contracts or customers require it. This is like your mom telling you to brush your teeth.

This is especially true of the well-known ISO 90001, criteria for quality management set by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). Many customers require it of their vendors, and vendors, in turn, require it of their suppliers. You need to certify to be acceptable as a business partner. But choosing to certify to standards to set yourself apart, to differentiate your company, is a clever and unique strategy.


This is the thinking of Adam McNair, COO of Highlight Technologies.  For Highlight Technologies, it works!

Who is Highlight Technologies? And who is Adam McNair?

Highlight Technologies is a woman-owned, small business that provides critical IT services to more than 20 U.S. federal government customers.  As a company, Highlight takes pride in their ability to implement industry best practices within their operations and in delivery of their services.  As a small business, it is particularly important to demonstrate this capability when working with government customers.  Certifying to standards shows that you apply some rigor in how you manage your business, and that translates to less risk and better outcomes for your customer.

As Highlight’s chief operating officer, Adam McNair oversees all aspects of service delivery, account management, and market strategies. Adam was seeking to acquire some additional capability from a business operations standpoint, and to leverage best practices in how to operate as a company. In his research, he came across ISO 44001 Collaborative Relationship Management. When he read it, it made a lot of sense for a service delivery business. McNair remarks that “they really don’t face a lot of technical problems anymore.  The problems they face are in interacting, either with other teams or within our team or with customers.”

Highlight is proud to cite that they are the first in the United States to certify to Collaborative Management.  McNair found that “Collaborative Management was pretty easy to implement because it made a lot of practical sense and frankly didn’t take us that long.” Looking back, McNair noted that it took something like only three or four months to implement because they had the common ISO underpinnings in place.

While quality management is critical, another important area for businesses to focus on is collaborative relationship management, with standards set forth by ISO 44001. In fact, I’ve been privileged to lead the U.S. delegation of the ISO’s committee for the collaborative business relationship management standard. My company, Phoenix Consulting Group, exclusively focuses on helping companies gain more value from their business relationships, and I’ve found that making this a priority has the potential to drive impactful results.

Replacing Folklore With Management Discipline 

Many companies lack discipline in managing their business relationships. Collaboration is more a matter of folklore than process. One of the advantages of adopting a collaborative management framework is documenting your practices and infusing these practices into the daily operations of the business.

Having a systematic process for qualifying partners, for example, is a best practice everyone could apply and benefit from. Starting a project or an alliance with the wrong partner is a recipe for failure. Establishing selection criteria and a vetting process helps determine which partner candidates have the right capabilities and the right relationship skills for a good fit and a strong prospect for success.

Another area of benefit is a regularly applied “lessons learned” analysis, in which you specifically examine how partners were involved and how they performed in your business. A key aspect of this analysis is the follow-up. This means addressing what changes need to be made to your business processes, which, of course, enables continuous improvement.

Implementing Collaborative Practices

Adopting the collaborative management standard is straightforward for organizations familiar with ISO management standards. Many of the high-level requirements that are common to all ISO standards would already be in place. Here are some areas for a business to consider:

  • Context of an organization requires an organization to define how collaborative business relationships fit within the organization and how to establish and maintain collaboration within its existing management systems.
  • Leadership requires top management support of the collaborative business model to ensure alignment with the organization’s goals and to include a policy describing when collaboration is appropriate.
  • Planning addresses how organizations must plan to achieve the benefits of collaboration and to identify and mitigate risks.
  • Support focuses on resources and competencies necessary to support collaboration.
  • Operations are the actions to implement and manage a collaborative business relationship. Here, the relationship management plan (RMP) is an integral part of the collaborative management framework. It is the road map for collaboration. You can capture your operational practices in selecting partners, how you engage, your governance for relationship management, metrics for success and continuous value creation.
  • Performance evaluation of your collaborative capability is required, including internal audits, to ensure that practices conform to the policies established for collaboration.
  • Improvement reflects the need to continuously improve the program and to take corrective actions when necessary.

Certification As A Differentiation

For partners, adopting the collaboration management framework is a proof point for a partner-of-choice standing. Standing out as a successful partner attracts the best potential partners to work with you. It is, in some respects, a risk management approach. By applying collaborative management practices, a company can do a better job of identifying risks and reassuring partners that they have a recipe for mutual success.

Certification can improve your value in the eyes of their customer. A company can demonstrate that it consistently works with suppliers and partners that perform well and have key practices in place. Compliance translates to specific tangible outcomes that directly benefit the customer.