How does an Alliance differ from a Collaboration?

I regularly get asked about the difference between a “collaboration” versus an “alliance” in the business or scientific domain, and also between “collaboration management” and “alliance management”. This is a short blog post to clear up the confusion.

Most dictionaries and most people I come across define collaboration along the lines of:

“Working with someone [else] to produce something [of benefit to both sides]”.

This is the meaning I adopt in both my writing and my consulting work on collaborations in business and in the scientific domain. So in essence, a collaboration is a project or set of activities conducted as a joint effort for mutual benefit by two or more parties.

If we then compound the above definition, collaboration management refers to:

“Those activities (over and above what would have been the case if only one party were involved) which are carried out to ensure that a collaboration proceeds efficiently, effectively and harmoniously to its goals in a timely fashion”.

So far so good. Much of the confusion actually comes from the word “alliance”, which most dictionaries define in the context of businesses or organizations as “an association or union formed for mutual benefit [between organizations]” or “a merging of efforts and interests [by organizations]”. In my experience, there are two different working interpretations of alliance in widespread use:

(i) “An alliance is a special or important collaboration which both parties regard as strategically important to their aims or interests”.

(ii) “An alliance comprises multiple collaborations, over a sustained period, which together constitute a strategically important relationship for both parties”.

Both the above interpretations are in common use across the bioscience and healthcare sectors which I work in. And I’ve heard many people use the phrase with both meanings, depending on the context in which they are speaking or writing!

Alliance management causes further confusion. It refers to:

“Those activities (over and above what would been the case if only one party were involved) which are carried out to ensure that an alliance proceeds efficiently, effectively and harmoniously to its goals in a timely fashion”.

But this definition could apply to either interpretation of “alliance”. If we go with the first interpretation of “alliance”, alliance management is just collaboration management for a very important collaboration. Whereas if we go with the second interpretation, alliance management operates at a higher level than collaboration management, taking into account the entire portfolio of collaborations between the parties over time.

To make matters even more confusing, many organizations have created an alliance management function or group/team, populated with alliance managers. Depending on the specific organization, the alliance management group interprets “alliance” according to either (and sometimes both) of the two definitions outlined above. Furthermore, the extent of collaboration management and alliance management activity conducted by people who are not in the alliance management function (but who are nevertheless directly involved in the collaborations) varies by organization as well.

In my consulting work, to avoid confusion, I go with whatever interpretation my client uses. In my writing, I use (except in specific circumstances which shall be made clear):

  • “Collaboration” and “collaboration management” as defined above.
  • “Alliance” as defined the second way i.e. multiple collaborations which constitute a strategically important relationship over time.
  • “Alliance management” to refer to management of such an alliance.
  • “Alliance management function” to refer to the dedicated group in an organization that leads and coordinates both collaboration management and alliance management.

For someone working in a collaboration/alliance or having to make decisions about one, I would make two suggestions. Firstly, ensure you understand how these terms are interpreted and used in the context of your own organization and the collaboration/alliance in question. Secondly and most importantly, ensure you understand how the people on the other side of the collaboration/alliance interpret and use those same terms – a lot of confusion could easily ensue otherwise!