Collaboration: Challenge for the Water Industry

by | May 22, 2012

What is the best way to manage water? Until recently, most of us have not given this question much attention. True enough, we may have realized at some point that water is an essential resource for supporting all life on the planet. Yet we assumed that there is, and will always be, an ample supply of water, and that water itself will always be one of our cheapest resources.

But in more recent years some of us who formerly were taking water for granted are now tuned into the critical issue of existing water shortages. While fresh water is a renewable resource, the world’s supply of it is steadily decreasing. In fact, in some parts of the world demand already outstrips supply.

We who are “concerned world citizens” know our first major focus, of course, must be the need to ensure sufficient fresh drinking water. In addition, we recognize the importance of maintaining an ample supply of water for sanitation, manufacturing, agriculture, and leisure purposes. The pressures for balancing these various needs are great and the issues complex.

The World Bank estimates that 2.8 billion people already live in areas of water scarcity. They project that by the year 2030 this number will rise to such an extent that over half of the world’s current population will be living in areas of water stress unless we drastically change our current practices. According to a recently published paper on water authored by Robert Eccles and colleagues of the Harvard Business School, trends such as population growth, increased urbanization and climate change are likely to exacerbate the problem. Moreover, the industry is highly fragmented, controlled locally, and impacted by a “convoluted government regulatory environment.”  [i]

Managing water is especially complicated because it crosses many boundaries, including national and institutional lines. Craig Goehring, CEO of Brown and Caldwell, the largest engineering consulting firm solely focused on the US environmental sector, describes how water management traditionally has been carried out by a number of institutions, each with its own objectives and boundaries. He says the objectives of the various bodies may not align well with an integrated approach focused at the level of the watershed.

For example, one institution may manage potable water, while another group focuses on wastewater, and a third entity concentrates on storm water. Yet increasingly world water challenges demand integrated solutions. “For example, who owns the responsibility for recycled water?” asks Goehring rhetorically. “The industry is going through the wringer on how to deal with stakeholder involvement,” he adds. Goehring claims that current challenges such as climate change and sea level changes require a new type of cross-institutional collaboration focused on “one water.”

This type of cross boundary cooperation isn’t easy. Roles are not well aligned with the challenges, nor are regulations broad enough to span the boundaries effectively. Nevertheless, there is now a bit of encouraging news: Agencies that have not previously worked together are finally attempting to reach above their own institutional missions to address the real and urgent problems that have accelerated the need for collaboration.

According to Goehring, the keys to successful collaboration in the management of water include the following:

–All institutions, agencies, and companies involved in water management must be committed to transparency.  In order for trust to build throughout the coalitions, all parties must be willing to contribute their best ideas. Successful collaboration is likely to require the sharing of some financial information and regulatory challenges with those who have been viewed in the past as competitors. Goehring claims that the protection of information from others is detrimental to finding the big solutions needed to address our monumental challenges.

Leaders at the top must set the tone. Leaders must not off-load the tactics. For example, leaders should not delegate decisions such as how much technical information to reveal. Goehring suggests that scientists are often used to holding information close to the chest. To break out of this mold, leaders must set behavioral examples and encourage others to impart what might previously have been viewed as technical secrets. It is incumbent upon top leaders to more willingly serve the greater good by achieving overarching objectives. Goehring claims that “proprietary intellectual property” often isn’t as special as we view it anyway.

It is vital that leaders set a framework for coalitions. It isn’t enough to bring representatives of institutions together merely to discuss issues. Real progress comes from a clearly defined framework for how the groups will work together. They need clarity of roles and a process for making and executing decisions.

All of these steps require a tolerance for risk that may challenge the comfort of many in the water industry. Nevertheless, this change in industry culture is not unlike that which other industries are facing. And in this case, our very survival may be at stake. While wide-scale industry change is tough, there really is no alternative.

[i] R.G. Eccles, A.C. Edmondson, G. Serafeim, & S.E. Farrell.  A Note on Water. Harvard Business School, N2-412-050, August, 2011.

Dr. Kathleen Miller Perkins is a psychologist and is the CEO and owner of Miller Consultants , a firm specializing in organizational development, executive coaching and change management  founded in 1980. Kathi Irvine is organization development consultant for Miller Consultants.

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