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Five Secrets to Enabling Highly Collaborative Ecosystems


There is much talk about business ecosystems as the newest models for collective collaboration across industry, geography and culture.  These ecosystems are considered important not only because value chains and supply chains are outsourced and fragmented, but also due to the speed in which markets change and new competitors literally pop-up. Today, key partners once operating at arm’s length around short-term contracts need to be closer and more responsive than ever, while also connecting with others actors once considered tertiary.

In addition, ecosystem models are being conceived to take advantage of new opportunities being created by broader interconnections. Interestingly ecosystem development is now not only reactionary to market change, but decidedly proactive. For example, who would have ever thought that a tech company such as Google would produce cars and perhaps compete with the largest of automakers, all the while cooperating with several of them on developing self-driving technology?

So here we are. Companies today need consistency, reliability, commitment and capability to react quickly in a system of greater connection, volatility and competition, while simultaneously looking for more sustainability, resilience and greater permanence.

Luckily, today, we not only have the wherewithal to envision business ecosystems, but also the technical and operational capabilities to blue-print, develop and enable their emergence. However, if not well-conceived, companies involved in making them a reality, particularly firms in the ‘center’ of the ecosystem may not access the benefits that a truly well designed ecosystem can bring.

At the end of the day, the devil is not only in the structural details, but also in the fundamental social contracts between the partners who participate in the ecosystem and choose to contribute collaboratively to its emergence.

These tried and true secrets, stemming from my recent book ‘Enabling Collaboration’ will help to build the kind of ecosystem that can self-correct and self-sustain in times of market change and dynamism that supports all actors’ success.

Build the Social Contracts as you build the Structure of the Ecosystem: this means sitting with the key ecosystem stakeholders, those that perhaps currently are part of the ‘supply chain and value chain’ and those that may lie right outside it. For example, customers, the public sector and NGO’s may make sense. In structured Partnership Innovation Sessions, establish the ‘basic operating principles’ of the ecosystem, founded on the affiliation and membership goals of the groups working through the details.

Create the Emotional Connection of Real People Co-creating Together: building a sustainable ecosystem does not happen in a vacuum but through the people who contribute to its design. To do this, bring diverse stakeholders who are an integral and vested part of the ecosystem to build the social fabric and the structural elements. Invest the time and effort for these relationships to be woven together in a productive and authentic fashion.

Use Principles of Ecosystem Sustainability:

  • Fair Distribution of Resources: Almost all ecological ecosystems use sunlight as their energy resource, in our case, sunlight is attune to money, and the fair and sustainable distribution of such value is fundamental to ecosystem design.
  • Establish Formal and informal Feedback Loops: All ecosystems have cycles of waste and replenishment of nutrients. Dealing with waste and other environmental concerns are part and parcel of ecosystem design. In addition, this includes creating formal and informal feedback-loops architected into the ecosystem where all actors can communicate and contribute to improve and better its operability.
  • Design Economic Resilience into the Ecosystem: resilience can happen serendipitous through the basic interconnections between the actors, or consciously through insurance products or savings accounts. The ecosystem actors can draw upon these resources during challenging times, or for investments in new shared technologies and capabilities.
  • Include Diverse Actors: All ecosystems depend on bio-diversity. For business ecosystems this includes ensuring that all touch-points of an ecosystem have some way to contribute to and get benefit from being part of the ecosystem. Benefit in this case, can be monetary, social or informational.

Leverage Technology but Don’t use it as a Replacement for Human Interaction, leveraging technology is a critical component for designing ecosystems and enabling participant stakeholder-partners to adapt to just-in-time learning, connect and communicate directly with all ecosystem participants. However, technology and systems do not replace people talking with and connecting together and coming to terms on challenges the ecosystem faces.  This way it can up-level to better designs and improved overall functioning.

Seek out Third Party Objective Partnership Facilitator, Collaborative Leadership, regardless of size, from the smallest of groups to the largest of complex multi-stakeholder ecosystems requires the help of a skilled objective third party. This third party, as a person or team of conveners, guides groups to see relational blind spots between partnering organizations. These unseen elements if not proactively addressed during the development phase, ultimately leak to the detriment of the system. It happens time and time again; groups don’t express grievances or concerns openly and still cooperate, ultimately unresolved issues cause greater problems down the line. Partners may try to win-over on the system, or worse, use unresolved issues as justification for inaction, lack of true collaborative participation and ownership.

What from this post could you take action on right now to improve or begin building your ecosystem?

What examples of ecosystem design can you share with the community that readers could learn from?

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