3 February 2015

Rethinking Competition and Collaboration in Ecosystems: Who Should You Work With?

One of the themes that keeps emerging in the work of the Cambridge Service Alliance is the importance of the ecosystem. We define an ecosystem as the wider network of firms and organisations that can or could influence the way the focal firm creates and captures value through the provision of its products and services. Members of this wider network might include, but are not limited to: collaborators, regulators, clients, customers and consumers, their stakeholders, suppliers and competitors.

Why does an ecosystem perspective matter? The first reason is that thinking about ecosystems encourages executives to take a broader view on the opportunities they face. This argument was first made by Moore in his Harvard Business Review article - "Predators and Prey: A New Ecology of Competition". As the boundaries between traditional industrial sectors break down organisations change the way the create value for their customers. Take a simple example - airlines. Are they in the travel business? After all their primary function is to transport people from A to B? Are they in the entertainment and catering business - they feed and entertain people while on their planes. Are they in the holiday business? Witness the emergence of BA and Virgin holidays. Are they in the telecoms business - think about in flight telecoms and wireless services. Even more extreme examples are seen in electronics and telecommunications. Phone companies now double as internet service providers. They offer on demand TV and video services. They are debating what else they can do given the cables they have running into your house. Utilities companies in general are blurring - water companies will provide gas and electricity. Gas companies will reduce the price you pay if you buy electricity from them as well. An even more radical example is provided by electric vehicles - some are exploring how they might be used as energy storage devices when not being driven. Boundaries between sectors are blurring and disappearing. As they do new opportunities emerge. Being constrained by a logic which says "we are an automotive firm" or "we are a pharmaceutical firm" simply limits innovation and creativity.

This theme of innovation and creativity is a second reason why ecosystems thinking is so important. Firms define often themselves in terms of their markets, customers and competitors. Yet one thing we have seen in our work is the increasingly complex nature of inter-organisational relationships. It is common to see firms competing for some contracts, while collaborating on others. IBM, for example, competes with software vendors such as Oracle and SAP, yet also installs Oracle and SAP systems when their customers want them to. BAE Systems partners with Babcock to deliver services at Portsmouth Naval Base, yet competes with Babcock for other MoD contracts. This complex and nested set of relationships raises some interesting questions. If you define another organisation solely as your competitor there's a danger you miss opportunities for innovation and collaboration. The car industry provides an excellent example. Many car manufacturers have close relationships with (or in some cases own) Dealer networks. They see the Dealer as the primary route to market and the obvious choice for all after-sales service and support. Yet there are loads of small, independent garages that offer vehicle service and support. Often customers prefer these independent garages - they are cheaper, operate with lower overheads and only use genuine original equipment spares when needed. Traditionally the automotive manufacturers have seen these independent garages as the enemy. They take work from the Dealer network, build direct relationships with the end customer and generally disrupt the industry.

But if you draw a broader circle and include these "annoying independent garages" in your ecosystem, you could - as an original equipment manufacturer - start to ask how might we collaborate with these independent garages? Should we offer to manage their spare parts inventories through consignment stocks? Should we provide them specialist tooling and equipment, creating a larger market for proprietary technologies? As the use of telematics and remote monitoring increases, should we - the original equipment manufacturer - sell the engine diagnostic data to independent garages to help them provide better service to their customers? Perhaps the original equipment manufacturer can create a more seamless, integrated and lower cost service for their customers by collaborating with their traditional competitors.

Its only when you start to challenges the assumptions that you hold about how your industry operates and where the boundaries lie that you start to think creatively about the opportunities that are open to you. Taking an ecosystem perspective and broadening your horizon is a great way of thinking about how you might innovate your business model.

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