05/20/2010 07:35 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Sustain-enable: Why are companies sharing their green innovation?

Intellectual property is something Softchoice understands. As a provider of IT solutions, the company lives in the world of competitive advantage created through ideas. So why is it providing free tools for sustainability reporting with its new Corporate Social Responsibility report?

"We're a knowledge-based organization, and we want to do our part to foster sustainable business practices" says Melissa Alvares, Sustainability Programs Manager at Softchoice. "When we began our green journey, we struggled to find resources and tools. Our goal with this report is to help other companies by sharing our story and some of the practices we've developed along the way."

In short, enabling others to fast track their sustainability learning will help build Softchoice's brand as a green leader. But will it boost the bottom line?

A method to the madness

This willingness to give suppliers (and perhaps even competitors) an edge is unconventional. A few years ago, it would've been deemed heresy. But there are some very successful precedents that lead one to believe the good people at Softchoice know exactly what they're doing.

One remarkable example is the phenomenon of coopetition. Although first coined back in 1913, the concept was harnessed as a game-changer by Ray Noorda and Novell, and was part of the reason the 'pesky fly on the rump of Microsoft' went on to own 65% of the market for network operating systems in the 1990's.

The auto industry has similarly used coopetition to great effect. One example was the teamwork of Peugeot and Toyota to create shared components for a new city car for Europe in 2005.

On the one hand, coopetition doesn't seem to come from the same ideological space as Softchoice's 'sustain-enabling' CSR report. While coopetition is often regarded as holding one's nose and cooperating with the enemy for profit, sharing sustainability best practices is about amplifying learning to accelerate the race to zero carbon. It's a contrast between individual versus holistic gain.

On a more fundamental level, though, both coopetition and sustain-enabling stem from a similar condition: the need to supercharge innovation.

Innovation to the power of two

Big ideas are hard to come by - especially when they need to be conceived in isolation. We often refer to this as the inability to read the label if you're stuck inside the jar.

But a remarkable thing happens when you invite outsiders to the innovation table. Silos are broken, sacred cows slaughtered, and limiting practices thrown on the trash heap. Suddenly, you're innovating at a pace previously thought impossible.

Given the depressing state of our global climate, breakthrough innovation at breakneck speed is precisely what the doctor ordered.

Softchoice's sustain-enabling is by no means the only example of this encouraging phenomenon. Another inspiring example is the GreenXchange, a new project between the Creative Commons, Nike and Best Buy.

GreenXchange explores how the digital commons can help holders of patents collaborate for sustainability. If inaccessible 'rights reserved' properties were a Gordian knot preventing innovation in the past, the GreenXchange intends to wield the greater good of sustainability as a sword that slices through the knot.

The result? Freer collaboration, access to big (and previously protected) ideas, and hopefully a frenzy of innovation that will boost both sustainability technology and the fortunes of Nike and Best Buy.

If this is the vision of sustainability to come, it's a very enabling vision indeed.