A Conversation about Co-creation
between Nick Coates, Promise, and Nicholas Ind, author and brand consultant
19th April, 2012
Co-creation is essentially about being more collaborative and working across the silos and boundaries that have defined firms for most of the 20th Century. How far do you think we've come?
I've just been reading Mary Parker Follett's writings from the 1920s and 1930s. She was an early management guru who was influential at the time, but then largely forgotten. Ninety years ago she was arguing for the benefits of collaboration and predicting what we would now call co-creation. Yet it seems to have taken a long time to realise the opportunity afforded by cooperation. I think there are two reasons for this: firstly firms have largely operated closed systems which have cut them off from the outside world and encouraged 'silo-ization' and secondly, collaboration requires trust - something that often seems to be missing.
So I think we have come some way - not least because technology has helped to open organisations up - but I still worry about the issue of trust. What do you think? Am I being pessimistic?
On the contrary, I think trust is a massive issue. In my experience it takes a few different forms, from a lack of trust in the consumer to a lack of trust in organisations' own ability to 'go with the flow'. Too many organisations are essentially command-and-control structures and insight functions are constantly struggling to balance freedom and control. Research should be inherently about exploration, not some kind of mass produced industrial undertaking. This approach is predicated on the assumption that being controlling leads to better organisational outcomes. It’s an assumption that makes my skin crawl. And the opposite - letting go - is precisely what fascinates me in the whole beta movement; beta shows how an organic, open, culture can lead to more resilient outcomes. Freedom doesn’t have to mean chaos.
That's an interesting point about freedom and control. Of course you need a balance of the two, but often market research doesn't allow for much freedom. Research is shaped by the organisation's direction and the blinkers that a culture imposes. Generally the exploration has already been done by managers. The danger there is that while their views might be informed by previous research and analysis, the way the market is addressed already suggests a partially closed mind: 'we think we know the answer, but let's see what customers think.' It seems to me that one of the virtues of co-creation is that is has the potential to be more open. It can invite consumers to take part in early stage exploration of ideas as well as filtration and development. Whether it is online or offline, co-creation allows people to challenge managerial ideas and to explore new directions. Of course that can feel risky and be threatening for managers because it can undermine widely shared views.
Do you have any good examples of companies who are taking risks with this?
I think there are some interesting examples of organisations that open themselves up. Mozilla, which owns Firefox and Thunderbird, has a stated mission to promote openness, innovation and opportunity on the web. They practise what they preach, so they allow anyone who wants to be involved to participate in developing the brand. That gives them tremendous power, because they can utilise the enthusiasm of contributors all round the world in product development and marketing.
Mozilla’s an interesting case in point. Their whole outlook was a little bit ‘against the grain’ of the Microsoft-type tech company, wasn’t it? And I suspect that because they involved users in creating their software, traditional insight wasn’t really on the agenda. Why ask questions when your customers are not only telling you already, but building a better solution?!
A lot of this comes from the top of course. Organisations that are willing to 'let go' are also able to take more risks with their insight programmes, commission more exploratory work (and less tracking or evaluation), and are more likely to engage in activities like customer closeness, internal communications, online communities and co-creation work. For researchers, this means shaping the insight agenda rather than being 'the data people'.
And in a cultural sense, co-creativity means people have to be more open-minded, which in practise means:
1. Research humility - Not assuming that we know the question, let alone the answer and involving the customer in shaping the agenda
2. Listening for possibility - understanding that rational and emotional truths can co-exist and that the answer isn't just 'what the customer said'
3. Building belief - focusing on letting insights emerge and making them 'feelable'.
All of these are things that good (often qualitative) researchers do every day. But I think they are quite challenging for some organisations. The fact that co-creativity brings them to the fore is sometimes a terrifying prospect for buyers.
I agree with most of what you say, but I would make the point that there are some issues here. For starters, I am torn in two directions about the idea of humility. I do believe that researchers (and brand managers) need to have humility; to be open to possibilities. But I would add that while the brand is co-created in a space where the organisation and the consumer meet, this doesn’t mean the organisation shouldn’t try to influence and direct the brand. So brands need to be good listeners, but they should also have opinions.
Secondly, even if researchers are willing to let go, there is no certainty that other people in the organisation will do so. I think co-creation can be valuable in this, for while it is a relatively new (and perhaps intriguing approach) it seems more likely that non-researchers will be happy to take part. Mention the possibility of attending a focus group to most managers and they will quickly remember a dinner party or anniversary they have to go to. Talk to them about taking part in an in-depth creative exercise together with consumers and there is much more interest.
Finally, I think we should remember that co-creation research involves the organisation to a greater degree than other approaches. So you do tell participants more at the outset about the background and the requirements, you do provide continuous interaction and you do provide regular feedback reports on progress. What firms can sometimes forget though is that when a co-creation community or event ends, it is not the end. When consumers have invested their time and creativity in working with and connecting to a brand, they want to know what happens to their ideas. So the firm should not just walk away. It should recognize the importance of feedback after the event too.
That’s interesting, because while I agree that the idea of co-creation is appealing, the reality is often unnerving, for all the reasons we’ve hinted at. Turning up to a few groups is often the easy way out. It’s not putting very much at stake. And in my experience it’s putting yourself ‘at risk’, at least for a day, that generates the impact and ‘experiential’ dimension that makes co-creation so powerful.
It’s our job to show that co-creation works, particularly because it’s an internal belief-building tool. We have to continue to help organisations make co-creativity a part of their outlook and day-to-day practises, not just something that happens on a project-by-project basis. This is one of the potential applications of customer advisory boards and closeness programmes; making co-creation part of our clients’ bloodstream.
But we’re talking about more than just tools here and I don’t think a good outcome for co-creation is that we end up with ‘another tool’. I think we need to aim higher: to be part of a world where openness and more organic approaches are part and parcel of business; where customers are routinely part of decision-making; where managers and front-line staff feel they are able to act in concert with customer desires. And where businesses are fundamentally more empathic.
I must say I’m not convinced that most businesses see this as a priority. Many seem to believe that they are pretty good. Bain did a study not long ago, which showed the scale of the gap: 80% of business leaders felt they were customer-centric, only 8% of customers agreed.
Whenever I talk about co-creation to business leaders they are very receptive to the idea. But the temptation is often to see it as a tool. That’s fine, as far as it goes, but as you point out, there is a much bigger opportunity out there for firms that really open themselves up, encourage participation and learn to trust others.
Most people are focusing on co-creation as an innovation technique. Your new book is just out and focuses a lot on ‘brand’ as a major dimension for co-creation, hence the title Brand Together. What light can brand throw on everything we've been discussing, do you think? If brands are ‘texts’ that are read, to borrow Umberto Eco’s term, like an ‘open work’, what does that imply? Does brand, as a set of partly subjective values, create a new imperative for openness?
The brand creates the framework for co-creation – so it colours the way people think about what they do, and in turn, the outputs of co-creation stretch the brand in new ways. It’s a good reminder that brands are continually evolving as organisations and individuals meet, talk and act together. So, I think you are absolutely right that the brand creates the need for openness – otherwise the dialogue will be stilted and limited. When there is real openness both sides get the opportunity to shape the future of a brand.
‘Brand Together: How Co-Creation Generates Innovation and Re-Energizes Brands’ by Nicholas Ind, Clare Fuller and Charles Trevail (and featuring a chapter by Nick Coates) is published by Kogan Page. You can buy it on Amazon.
Nick Coates & Nicholas Ind
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