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business models, strategies and technologies

Professionalising partnershipping

Partnering is easier to talk about than to get right. Interesting mechanisms and structures are emerging to help ambitious businesses meet their dream date …

In current discourses about the transformative economy, there’s a lot of talk about companies “partnering” with other actors – be they in the private or public sector. Inclusivity, collaboration and building communities of users are now more the current meme than traditional cut-throat competition and ring-fenced rigidity. So it’s perhaps strange that the structures and mechanisms behind this pivotal shift haven’t had much focus. And that many candidates for such “partnering” measures can’t and won’t just be in the conveniently samo samo geographical and cultural neighbourhood. So help will be needed …

From serendipity to system

The thing about partnerships is that they are often formed to help achieve a goal that is probably only partially defined or definable, and where there are many unknowns as well a wide range of possible outcomes. Furthermore, most of the assessment parameters are substantially more fluid than in a traditional “single man at the helm” setup.

I’ve worked on the sidelines of lots of co-development and partnership processes over the years, and it’s interesting to see how they emerge. Generalising horribly, it often seems to be a mixed game of chance, historical baggage and practical convenience – so that the partner company you end with is defined more by practicality and availability than by being ideal. It’s the “art of the possible” – because where/how can you seek the unknown or the seemingly impossible? The greater the size and capabilities of organisations involved in such collaborative ventures, the greater the risk of mis-matches and tensions arising, especially when operating environments are in flux and the financial models are breaking new ground.

This seems to provide a strong “business case” for some kind of structured process to replace “old boys’ networks” and the perils of serendipity. Lots of the currently cool co-working spaces are even sub-surface predicated on the tantalising hope that sweet music will arise between like-minded startups and entrepreneurial spirits. But is this kind of happenstance really strong enough to bear the future of your company –  and are you willing to take that risk?

I chanced on a Swiss-based company that seems to be able to help companies (and other organisations) take such leaps on a more substantial basis. Constellate bills itself as a partnership broker, consultancy and think tank, and aims to provide researched and validated underpinnings for effective multi-stakeholder partnerships.

 a new kind of company, designed from the ground up to provide the services and assets to enable multi-stakeholder collaborations and partnerships to deliver to their full potential

Level of ambition

Constellate is, of course, far from the only company in this field, although it is a field perhaps less familiar to smaller companies and commercial setups that do not engage – or need to engage – with anything other than traditional contracts and transactions. However, as the basics of business life are changing beyond recognition and commercial challenges are increasingly global, inter-disciplinary and inter-connected, it seems likely that more and more companies will have to engage in new ways with new types of organisations to survive and thrive.

The Association is an experiment in creating a collaborative entity that can embrace a level of ambiguity and complexity.

Transformative ways of doing business and collaborating on multi-stakeholder projects require careful application of skills and resources along with clear, focused intentions. Hence it is worth noticing the existence of the Partnership Brokers Association. This is an international professional body that positions itself as representing those managing and developing a wide range of complex collaboration processes. It’s a mine of information – particularly their Betwixt & Between journal – about this kind of structured collaboration, and the big-scale opportunities it opens up.

Multiple angles on mixing

There are many other setups now running that tend more to focus on bringing together companies on different levels (rather than on multi-stakeholder peer projects). Corporates and startups are the two biggies, of course, from each end of the size and clout scales.

One of the bigger/better-known fora for this is the Plug and Play innovation platform, whose declared mission is to bring together the best startups and the world’s biggest companies “to make innovation open to anyone, anywhere.” This is a sizeable, comprehensive setup that dovetails accelerator programmes, corporate innovation structures and investment-willing resources, operating from 26 locations around the world. They themselves call it an ecosystem, and their 2018 performance report makes that sound about right.

One of the more conventional scenarios for prospective partnershipping practitioners consists of “matching” startups and corporations from one perspective, and corporations and startups from the other.

An example of the latter is Danish-based Valuer, which provides a platform that combines crowdsourcing and artificial intelligence to detect, predict, evaluate and select startups that appear to be particularly relevant to large companies and their specific needs. Valuer claims to help large companies, accelerators and investors find “high potential” startups that are a good fit for a particular corporation’s strategic innovation requirements.

There are also companies that apply technology to partnership cultivation. Accenture Digital Strategy recently showcased a “virtual consultant” platform that they describe as “the future of consulting” and have dubbed Sheldon. A quiet automation of the whole “finding each other for commercial salvation” process seems attractive, but closer reading of the Sheldon small print seems to indicate that this is mostly just data mining and AI-based software screening based on public arena data. Perhaps OK for doing the legwork and replacing “junior consultants” but probably not a partnershipping guidance package in whose hands you’d want to place your commercial future.

There are also community/crowd-based innovation platforms like Munich-based HYVE, which focuses on value co-creation via managed open innovation processes in which size/role are less decisive in the matchmaking process. In the HYVE context, the point of entry and the strategic focus is usually a specific problem, challenge or idea, rather than the identities of the partners. This kind of process/platform used to be called crowdsourcing, but that’s really an unfortunate misnomer.

And then there are ventures like The Audacious Project – an ambitious, collaborative approach to funding big ideas that have the potential to create change on a societal scale. Without access to venture capital or stock markets, social entrepreneurs are usually forced to seek out and pitch to donors on a highly inefficient one-by-one basis. Housed at TED, and supported by The Bridgespan Group, The Audacious Project aims to rectify this in order to support changemakers in implementing big, bold ideas at scale – the project declares that it identifies jaw-dropping ideas for global change. The focus here, however, is less corporate and more in the realm of non-profits, social entrepreneurs, philanthropic organisations, NGOs, etc. – and securing funding for their brilliant ideas.

There are also, of course, lots of less corporate, smaller-scale constellations like (for ex) Enspiral in New Zealand, focusing on social enterprise and collaborative funding – i.e. more about collaboration between (near)-equals.

The need to succeed

Briefly put, there are now numerous constellations and platforms available to make partnershipping more effective. There are also varying degrees of old(er)-school intervention/outsourcing à la Constellate, through to transparent, DIY platform approaches more designed to just “make the introduction”.

But it’s not just a question of structure. The driver for such collaboration efforts is crucial, and one of the most powerful dynamics available comes from corporates with a pressing “need to succeed” – the emphasis being on the “need” word. For them, partnershipping and collaboration can be a question of commercial survival.


NB In the interests of transparency, I should point out that I have subsequently met the founder of Constellate – in another context.