Scientia potentia est or “Knowledge is power” – so they say. Knowledge, used in the right context, can give you the keys to the kingdom so it’s no wonder that big corporates often keep a lid on their latest projects and research findings. What would happen if these institutions started really communicating with each other though?
To clarify, I’m not thinking of illicit methods of collusion to corner a market, but the idea of “Coopetition”: cooperative competition. Coopetition, sometimes given as coopertition, finds its roots in game theory, whereby “The aim...is to move the market from a zero-sum game, where a single winner takes all, to an environment in which the end result benefits the whole and makes everyone more profitable”. The phrase itself is still a neologism, but the idea of two or more competitors coming together to share knowledge or resources for the mutual benefit of all parties has been very much alive since before Noah built the ark.
A prime example of this sort of cross-party arrangement would be that of Groupe PSA and Toyota, whereby the different brands combined forces in rolling out the Peugeot 107, the Toyota Aygo and the Citroën C1. The result of this exchange of design and resources led to both companies providing new city cars, still unique in their stylings, whilst both parties came away with dramatically reduced production costs: a win for manufacturer and consumer alike.
In the various countries I have worked in around the world (the UK, US, Luxembourg, Australia and New Zealand to name a few), I have often asserted the importance of exploring avenues of coopetition to achieve both my own and the business’s full potential. Sadly, CEOs in my more formative years resisted this idea, although not to my surprise given the protective stance of corporates over future plans, current intellectual property and resource management; you can only blame the ever increasingly competitive nature of the global marketplace for this level of distrust as companies battle the elements to weather the storm. I even recently suggested the idea of coopetition to one of New Zealand’s finest business people: the reply I got was, “Good luck with that”. All is not lost though: my work in New Zealand has me enlightened to several other executives whose endeavours have firmly cemented the benefits of coopetitive efforts.
Gerben Otter, now a Senior Executive in New Zealand, has a reputation that definitely baffles those that have not experienced his sort of dynamic thinking before. Whilst working as CIO of at Adidas, he shocked the company by arranging to meet his mirror at Nike at their headquarters in the US, discussing “Spending levels, how to manage challenges in getting approval for projects, project management strategies and how to prioritise investments, like retail solutions and big data”. Otter carried on with this sort of radical thinking when he moved to the Southern Hemisphere and it is this sort of business vision that might have snagged him his current job at Fonterra.
In the vein of this inspirational businessman then, I decided it was time to come back to the idea of coopetition and see what could be gained if I reached out to open sharing channels. Locally, I met with all of my competitors in New Zealand and 95% of them were willing to work together, sharing their information and learning from my experiences. I gave and was given help in numerous ways and it left me on quite the high, ready to try out my new ideas in the field, but was this the sort of breakthrough that served to highlight a change in attitude since my last attempt to fly the coopetition flag?
I tried this experiment again with 20 CEOs and Managing Partners at the top Executive Search companies globally. I asked them if they were willing to share ideas, thoughts and experiences and vice versa, but, sadly again, only two companies were willing to share: the trend of a lifetime continued. Perhaps one day, this outlook on mutually beneficial cooperation between competitors will change and more of those at the top will see the upside, but, until then, I guess those unwilling to learn and share will miss out. At least at a more grassroot level amongst the local competitors (though I use “Grassroot” with some hesitation given the enormity of some of these organisations), there is a trend of pushing to get the best out of themselves – even utilising what some might see as a weird and wonderful method in coopetition.
Here’s looking to the future though, in hopes that a change will come for all sooner rather than later!