How to Communicate Across Partner Ecosystems to Spark Innovation

26 July, 2018 / Articles
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Digital disruption is all around us, forcing incumbent businesses to fight for their very survival. Just look at Uber’s impact on taxi fleets or Airbnb’s effect on the hotel industry. In today’s hyper-connected digital economy, companies have no choice but to disrupt or die.

It’s a harsh reality, but it’s one we must address. However, no single company can create disruption alone. To drive new value propositions, markets and business models, companies must cultivate a robust partner ecosystem comprising a diverse set of internal and external players, such as startups, universities, go-to-market partners, vendors and, most importantly, customers.

To be successful, this co-innovation approach requires strong communication among all parties, but communications is not always the sweet spot for those leading innovation. Some even say that poor communications is the “silent killer” of large companies. Take Nokia for example. The company was once atop the smartphone market, exploring color touchscreens more than seven years before the iPhone existed. However, Nokia struggled to bring its ideas to market, likely due to poor communication management, unfocused discussions and unclear plans. As a result, the company captured just 1.1% of the global smartphone market in 2017.

It’s time for a change. As businesses across industries build their partner ecosystems for co-innovation, they must consider the following advice for working with their partners in a manner that most effectively sparks new ideas and positive outcomes.

  1. Consider your audience.

Each ecosystem is unique, with a diverse set of partners that each have a specific role. Therefore, gear your communication efforts toward each partner’s area of expertise. This will garner the most value from your discussions. For example, when working with startups, build trust by discussing joint go-to-market strategies, potential bundling options (think Hulu and Spotify) and investment opportunities. If you’re collaborating with universities and academia, center conversations on validating groundbreaking research ideas, co-developing solutions and creating cutting-edge internship opportunities for students. When working closely with customers, discuss co-creating new solutions that deliver better value while solving real business problems.

  1. Listen and learn.

While it is nice to have someone to serve as a sounding board, communication must be a two-way street. Listen and learn at every chance you get when speaking with your partners. Many startups already have an eye for co-innovation, with experience breaking down departmental siloes and embracing ideas that come from anyone, anywhere, anytime. So, you can stand to learn a great deal from these nimble and forward-thinking entities. Also, don’t forget your own employees in this process. Collectively, they know way more about what is innovative than your C-suite. Solicit feedback through surveys, social media and even focus groups, and encourage employees to scout new ideas, technologies and other potential partners. The goal is to discover something new — whether that’s a new product or a new way of doing business — but that discovery won’t occur unless you listen.

  1. Embrace diversity and inclusion.

As you listen and learn, you’ll find that not all viewpoints are the same. But this only makes your ecosystem stronger. Whether diversity means organizations in different industries or people from different socioeconomic backgrounds, genders, ages or education levels, everyone in your ecosystem is playing for the same team. The best ideas rarely arise when everyone has the same point of view or experience. A recent study from North Carolina State University explored the business case for diversity and found a strong correlation between innovation and diverse workplaces.

  1. Be candid.

As you share ideas and listen to your ecosystem, be transparent and candid — even if it means discussing failures and challenges. True innovation requires the ability to pivot from one idea to the next and learn from your mistakes. In these cases, your partners can provide fresh perspectives and help you make adjustments until you succeed.

  1. Get creative.

Not all ecosystem communications are restricted to a boardroom. Look for ways to connect with your ecosystem outside typical business settings. Hold a joint workshop with your customers, partner with local universities on internship programs and research, or have lunch at a startup accelerator. Arrange a time to bring together customers, startups, public service officials and academia in a co-working-like environment to share ideas, challenges and best practices. Provide your employees with channels to connect with other local innovators and business leaders. By sharing their innovative ideas with other organizations’ employees, you may very well unlock new partnerships that may otherwise have gone unnoticed.

  1. Stay consistent.

Consistently communicate your brand and the value you bring to your ecosystem. You may have partners in different regions and even countries, so consistency is key to transcend cultural and language barriers. I recommend creating an in-depth messaging document that all internal stakeholders can reference when speaking to your partners, prospects, recruits and even the media. This document should include clear language on your company’s mission, value proposition, competitive differentiators and real-life examples of your co-innovation success. With consistent messaging in place, don’t be afraid to shout from the rooftops all the innovative things your company is doing — highlight employee achievements on social media, share customer case studies with your stakeholders and tell your story to the media for some positive publicity.

Innovation is a team sport. Gone are days of proprietary thinking and solo-entrepreneurship. Innovation is better together — co-innovating with an ecosystem of diverse partners. But, without clear, consistent and candid communication that includes listening and learning, you’ll end up spinning your wheels. Don’t get left behind in these disruptive times. Practice strong communications with your ecosystem of partners and customers, and you’ll more readily spark and foster innovation that puts your company in the driver’s seat of your market.

The science man and innovator, Fernando Fischmann, founder of Crystal Lagoons, recommends this article.

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