Co-Innovation: The Right Way to Make a Vendor Relationship Work

You know how they say a rising tide lifts all boats? Turns out that concept applies to innovation, too—especially if you find the right partner for co-innovation, a growing collaborative trend.

A couple of weeks ago, I probably sounded a bit like a harbinger of bad news with a downer take on startups. (Pessimism is not quite as fun to write about!)

And given that my post largely leaned on the idea of startups with whom associations are primarily customers, where they’re simply sending a monthly or yearly payment to use a service, there’s a lot of reasons why that take is fairly accurate. With so much of the market built around software as a service (SaaS), there can be a tendency for startup relationships to be purely transactional, where your organization is just buying a service from a company and there may never even be a phone call involved.

But not every relationship with a vendor, new or old, looks quite like that. Sometimes, the innovation is much more up close and personal. Rather than simply sending a check for an invoice, you might be more intrinsically wedded than that. In fact, you might be intertwined with that vendor simply because the service it provides is just so important to your organization that you basically have to be. And if you’re teaming up with a vendor in that context, that might be where your opportunity lies to try something interesting.

Recently, International Data Corporation laid out a list of predictions of things that will help push along digital transformation in the next five years, and one stood out to me in the context of my recent piece: the concept of “digital co-innovation,” in which partners within an ecosystem collaborate with one another to strengthen the overall value of a technological innovation.

Here’s what IDC recently said about the concept in its FutureScape report: “By 2022, empathy among brands and for customers will drive ecosystem collaboration and co-innovation among partners and competitors that will drive 20 percent collective growth in customer lifetime value.”

The “FutureScape” we’re talking about here is the near future; 2022 isn’t that far from now. And that’s honestly how it should be, because your organization should be doing things like this already, in ways big and small.

And yes, it can be with startups. In a recent piece for CIO, senior writer Clint Boulton makes the case that startups, even as risky as they are, might be better managed if the process is treated collaboratively through a formal program like an accelerator or incubator.

“CIOs can’t afford to ignore the newcomers when seeking strategic partners, and many enterprises have formal programs in place to work with startups,” he writes.

Boulton also offers up suggestions to help this process along, including something he calls a “reverse pitch” deck, in which an organization pitches itself to a smaller company as a potentially good partner. (To give you an idea of a company that might have done this, Target has  been heavily promoting its accelerator program Target Takeoff.)

Accelerators are already a hot commodity in associations, with industries such as newspapers, real estate, accounting, professional football, and country music taking part. But thinking in this way about internal concerns, such as taking a big risk on your AMS or revamping your digital communications or fundraising strategy, could be helpful as well, as it could help you find a way to create innovations that could translate into stronger wins for membership.

As I’ve noted in the past, there are cases where large organizations have the upper hand when it comes to innovation, generally considered the domain of the startup. But when two companies can work together on something that’s mutually beneficial—or perhaps even beneficial to their industry or the association space at large—it can lift everyone’s tides. If a vendor can road test an idea with your organization and then bring it to your members, that could be a huge shot in the arm to your ecosystem.

Big or small, new or old, if you can find a worthy partner to co-innovate with, it could make that big hill easier to climb.

(alashi/DigitalVision Vectors)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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