The Power of Communities

The Power of Communities

The Power of Communities

Guarav Bhalla

Originally published 2013 (PDMA Visions Magazine Issue 4, 2013 • Vol 37 • No 4)
Read time: 6 minutes

The 2013 Nobel Prize in Physics was recently awarded to François Englert and Peter W. Higgs, the two scientists who independently laid out the theoretical framework for the Higgs boson. The Higgs boson and the Higgs field form two of the cornerstones of what is known as the “Standard Model” of physics. The Higgs field is thought to permeate all parts of the universe, and it’s only by interacting with the Higgs field that particles that make up all matter in the universe acquire their properties, such as mass, charge and spin.

It is always gratifying when experimental rigors of the hard sciences endorse the theme of an article in an unrelated field. The importance of interaction, of relationships and connections, is also the theme of this article. Specifically, the article affirms that a wide array of benefits accrue to firms when they invest and tap into the power of communities to implement marketing and innovation programs that they typically designed and implemented on their own in the past.

At a macro level, the goal of each company is get closer to its customers, gain valuable strategic insights and then act on those insights to outperform competitors. Communities enable the achievement of this goal, by allowing companies to:

  • Listen to the market place and disseminate the voice of the customer to all departments and functions of the company, even those who mistakenly believe that fulfilling customer needs in a unique way is not their responsibility;
  • Engage customers in meaningful conversations to generate relevant and actionable insights, so managers can now make decisions using dynamic customer inputs; and
  • Respond to unmet and emerging customer needs through focused customer value innovation programs.

In addition to these macro benefits, five micro benefits merit mention to motivate companies that are still asking themselves the question: Should we invest in a community? They include:

  1. Elimination of time and distance;
  2. Sequential layering of value;
  3. Diversity of perspectives;
  4. Accelerating the NPD and innovation process; and
  5. Making the infeasible feasible.

Elimination of Time and Distance

Every day we are reminded nonstop that we live in a global, interconnected world. Despite the abundance of phrases and words pertaining to a flat world and global village, it is not always easy for truly large, global companies to gather relevant groups of stakeholders, like customers, in the proverbial village square. Communities can do that by eliminating time and space. They enable large companies to gather relevant stakeholders like customers, employees and oncology specialists from different parts of the world to focus on issues important to the company and important to the stakeholders.

IBM’s 72-hour value jam, organized at the behest of their then CEO Sam Palmisano, on the occasion of their 100th anniversary to determine what values should drive IBM for the next 100 years is a telling example of this benefit. Every single IBM employee, from every country—no exceptions—participated in the values jam that led to values that define an IBMer.

Sequential Layring of Value

Innovations rarely happen in one giant leap. In his book, “Group Genius,” Keith Sawyer, states how what are commonly called flashes of insight can actually be traced back to the previous dedication, hard work and collaboration of others. He also discusses how we can tap into the creative power of collaboration—the power of communities—to make our own insights more frequent and more successful.

Several examples of collaborative innovation are very visible. The inventions of Thomas Edison, Orville and Wilbur Wright and others in the automotive industry would fall in this category. But there are others that are less visible. Examples of the birth of the mountain bike and Java discussed in my book, “Collaboration and Co-Creation: New Platforms in Marketing and Innovation,” represent invisible collaboration, where several collaborators from the community added layer after layer of value to get the product to its finished state. Innovation requires several rounds of finishing and polishing, and the input of numerous collaborators and community members. We can see this dynamic in play on a daily basis in Dell’s innovation community IdeaStorm.

Diversity of Perspectives

Complex environments require diverse perspectives to both make sense of what’s out there and identify new business opportuni-ties. Physicians, hospital administrators and nurses working in a hospital are unlikely to share the same perspective on innovation opportunities in the hospital. For example, should the hospital invest in improving patient experience by reducing waiting times in a new digital pill dispenser or in fluid absorbing sheets for the maternity ward?

By deliberately populating communities with diverse groups of stakeholders—physi-cians, nurses, administrators, patients, in-dependent labs and consultants—the Clinic of Innovation at Oslo University Hospital, Norway’s largest trauma center, has been able to successfully launch an impressive and diverse array of initiatives ranging from cornea transplants to greater involvement of the population in their own wellness.

Accelerating the NPD and Innovation Process

We live in an innovation challenge economy. Companies like InnoCentive, Skild, eYeka and ideaken conduct scores of innovation contests for large Fortune 500 companies in any given year. The Case Foundation organized a conference on the subject a few years ago. Innovation challenges and contests significantly compress time and enable a company to develop and implement marketing and innovation programs that, if executed by the company, would have taken longer and would not have been of the same quality. Small wonder that Unilever has forged an alliance with eYeka to use its community of 250,000 creative consumers to accelerate the creation of marketing and communication programs.

Another significant example is the development of a next generation combat support vehicle. In a design challenge sponsored by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), Local Motors’ community of car enthusiasts was able to churn out a working model design in 14 weeks.

Making the Infeasible Feasible

A community is not just a group of customers or employees collaborating to solve an immediate marketing and/or innovation challenge. It can also be a group of companies collaborating to combat a social cause.

The Roll Back Malaria initiative is an inspiring example of how a community of companies made the infeasible feasible. Malaria is still a major illness in large parts of Africa. Often these parts are difficult to reach, testing the resolve of large pharmaceutical companies that have the drug but may lack the competencies to locate, distribute and replenish stocks of drugs to malaria patients in a timely manner. The Roll Back Malaria partnership launched an “SMS for Life” program to help get the drug to the most affected areas. To make it work the following companies lent their expertise:

  • Vodafone provided communication ex-pertise;
  • Google provided mapping technology; and
  • IBM provided project management.

The most important fact is that what was infeasible for each company individually became feasible on account of collaboration by a community of like-minded companies.

The idea that collaboration and community are important and can contribute to the successful creation, delivery and innovation of customer value should not come as a surprise to anyone working in large companies. Yet, despite that realization, a number of traditions still exist that propagate the romantic but false myth of creative individuals and/or departments flying solo to fuel the next round of the company’s growth and prosperity. It’s time to move beyond that era and formally recognize that the ability to tap into community and collaboration is a sustained source of competitive advantage. Not investing in it can jeopardize the future growth and wellbeing of a company.

About the Author

Gaurav Bhalla, PhD is a consultant, educator, author and speaker who focuses on the creation and innovation of customer value. He is the CEO of Knowledge Kinetics, a customer value innovation company.

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