The co-creative company – we are not alone

Customers and partners increasingly want to participate in the value creation. In this situation the smart company introduces a co-creation process to make the interaction easy and pleasant experience. This is the human centric approach to innovation that co-creative companies understand.

People want to be personally engaged in the products and services that they consume. In a traditional way of working the “Company A” produces stuff and individuals such as customers, suppliers, partners and employees are on the receiving end. In the co-creative company individuals and partners can participate in the value creation by their engagement to the innovation process. The essence of co-creation is “Company & Co”.

What does this mean? In a co-creative company employees get to design, interact and learn from each other. They no longer are given a job or task to accomplish, but are engaged in thinking what the job should be. They get to be part of the marketing rather than be given a campaign designed by management or by marketing experts. For customers the company no longer offers a product or service through marketing and sales push. The dialogue with the customer is the marketing message. And as a consumer you get to be part of the research & development yourself. When the customers are participating in the design the outcome of R&D is more than just a small sample of a chosen focus study group or workshop where only the selected few get the prestige of thinking what other consumers would also like. In a co-creative partnership the development work is actually a joint effort.

This kind of an approach is needed also when designing a new project consortia in which each organization has a shared responsibility to support the project objectives and tasks. In a genuine co-creative project the whole is in fact more than the sum of its’ parts. But the parts need to be fitted together before you can sum it up.

Let’s take an example of planning an European Horizon 2020 research and development project. The H2020 is an European multi-billion R&D funding framework program. It consists of annual calls for proposals that are aimed at specific topics. Most calls for proposals are targeting international consortia. Typically they request consortia of 5-10 participants, from more than 3 countries. And ask applicants to build thematic joint R&D projects with a schedule of 2-4 years and a budget of 3-10 million euros. The funding is to be shared with the participating organizations that can be companies, universities and associations also representing the end-users. The stage is set, but how to co-create in this framework?

In the process of writing a successful bid to H2020 substantial managerial expertise is needed. The task is to write a 100+ page project proposal with 20 authors. Just to read through the outcome is an effort of its own, not to mention having to dream and write the proposal with an international project team in which some of the participant are doing it for the first time. In addition to cultural differences and personal chemistry the participants have their home organizations with diverse and perhaps competing R&D strategies. And needless to say that the working time is limited by the tight deadlines that cannot be missed. Now you can ask how innovative is this setting?

Having been part of writing a dozen of these proposals per year for several years now, I can assure that the best way to become an expert in R&D collaboration and co-creation is to join on a consortia that is  aiming for one of these calls and draft a proposal together. It will be a learning experience.

To me this is co-creation in its purest form: you get to design a novel project, aiming at R&D outcomes that you will have to produce together during the project if you get the contract. The co-creation involves universities for research, companies for business, end-users and stakeholders for the market validation and usability testing. The co-creation capacity of this team can be first tested when writing the plan, then proven in the negotiations for the contract and implemented when doing the project. It is a vehicle of co-creation and a laboratory of innovation management. The proposals that involve a wide variety of stakeholders can form a miniature innovation ecosystem that can at best deliver a significant impact to the society.

The luxury of working with proposals and bid writing is that you get to plan, design and create your future projects and reshape your working environment over and over again. Working in different consortia you can be extending your network, while relying on your own personal capabilities and skills to support and uplift the co-creation process.
In this work professional R&D managers can help researchers and small companies co-create these proposals and manage the related innovation processes. The hard fact is that this expertise is scarce and being successful in it requires years of learning.

I think that the best way to learn co-creation is to participate in ambitious proposals an projects where co-creation is the leading research and development philosophy.