Friday, September 2, 2011

Partnership Development: A Cornerstone for Business Strategy & Excellence

Last year, in one of my blog post, I emphasized that companies do not compete alone, their networks compete with other networks. In my other blogpost, I dwelled upon various areas of collaboration including external collaboration. Both posts indicate that ability of a company to develop and manage partnerships is important to sustain a competitive advantage. In this post, various business scenarios that warrant partnership development are discussed which emphasize the direct linkage between 'partnership development' and 'business strategy & excellence'.  

Business Ecosystem: The concept of business ecosystem is two decades old but its relevance has been only growing with time. Today its adoption has gone beyond high-tech community. Any company irrespective of the industry is a part of a larger business ecosystem. 

For instance, the business ecosystem for a company making energy saving building materials will include green building design, building automation, life safety system, utility services, fire safety systems, hybrid energy systems, HVAC, lighting systems and other providers. All of these providers share something in common and i.e. 'Green Buildings'. Collective success of them will expand the market of 'Green Buildings' and hence the market for each provider.

Agri-business is another good case to understand business ecosystem. Agri-ecosystem consists of input providers like seed, farm equipments, fertlisers, pesticides etc, food processors, retailers, farmers and customers. Also the ecosystem includes advisory providers, regulators, logistics providers and others. Now consider a seed company. What can the company do to increase its sales more than its competitor when there is not much scope of product differentiation in seed business. The conventional business approach would focus on sales and marketing. But some companies have gone a step further to take a stake in success of their customer 'the farmer'. The success of the farmer benefits the company in two ways: First, it increases farm productivity and hence increases the demand of the seeds. Second, it builds the market reputation of the seed provider. But the success of the farmer depends on various other factors apart from seeds like, nutrient management, weed and pest management, irrigation, market prices he gets for his produce etc. Hence, the seed provider needs to engage the players in agri-ecosystem. Some seed companies are beginning to do so.

Business ecosystems are dynamic and new ones emerge over time. For instance, rise of mega cities and urban congestion is creating an Urban Mobility ecosystem comprising of transport providers, automotive OEMs, payment gateways, insurance, utility providers, location based service providers and others. Automotive dealers and OEM need to be cognizant of this development and ensure that they can sell their vehicles in this ecosystem. Some automotive OEMs are taking lead in creating such ecosystems and positioning their vehicles for on-demand use.

The be successful, one needs to identify the relevant ecosystem, partner with its constituents and then sell to the ecosystem. Doing so no only grows the whole pie but also increase your share in the pie.

Knowledge Intensive R&D: In knowledge intensive industries like Pharma, high-tech, software industries, R&D generates intellectual property (IP). IP becomes a source of competitive advantage and companies file patents to protect them. At the same time, companies have to take care not to infringe on others' IP because patent litigation can be very expensive and risky. Product development not only requires working with in-house IP but also that of competitors. Competitors can also act as Complementors. Hence it makes sense to partner with your competitors for mutual gain. Companies sign non-exclusive cross-license agreement where parties get 'freedom to operate' in each other's IP. 

Product complexity is increasing and products now combine the best of research in different fields. A company cannot expect to specialize in every field. Hence a company needs to co-create with companies specializing in other fields. One can see such partnerships in high-tech industry where a fabless manufacturer has to collaborate with manufacturers, EDA vendors and IP providers in product development phase.

Shifts in Value Chains: Roles of players in an industry's value chain change over time. For instance, one would normally see companies moving up the value chain. OEMs taking up a system integrator role and offering solutions rather than products. 1st Tier Suppliers increasing their participation in product development and assembling modules for final product. Consolidation may happen among upstream commodity suppliers to achieve economies of scale and increase their supplier power. New players like remanufacturers, recyclers, 3rd party logistics may gain importance in value chain. 

A company which focuses on its core competence needs to develop strong relations with other value chain players to adapt to changing business environment. For instance, an Automotive OEM will keep its core-competence in Power Train technology in-house and outsource other design works to capable suppliers. This would free up the resources for OEM to concentrate on next-gen technologies like electric cars, hybrids, mobility solutions etc. With growing pressure on environmental friendly handling of reverse supply chain, an OEM, rather than building the capabilities in-house, can partner with a reverse logistics provider. 

Industry Standards: Acceptance of an industry standard is always preceded by competing standards.  Betamax vs VHS and Blueray vs HD are typical examples of competing standards in past. The key success factor to win an industry standard war is the supporting network of companies from different stakeholder groups. For instance, to develop industry standard for infotainment, several OEMs, hardware and software services providers have come together to form GENIVI alliance. Currently we are seeing the standard war in 3D between LG & Samsung and strengths of their respective networks will decide the winner.

Sustainability for survival: Several companies have discovered that sweet spot where sustainability serves their business needs and hence enter mutually beneficial partnerships with communities/NGOs/Government/Companies. For instance, Microsoft is partnering with community colleges to improve education standards and hence also address its business need of skilled manpower. Starbucks partners with CI (Conservation International) to reach out to coffee growers who are important to their business. 

Above scenarios prove that partnerships is emerging as key strategic asset to stay ahead and respond to the dynamic and evolving business environment. Today ability to develop and sustain partnerships is a competitive capability but tomorrow it would become another survival skill.

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