Organizations understand the vital importance of innovation. Chief Executives talk about it, managers nurture it and consumers expect it. Yet it is also a potentially disruptive process that interferes with well-laid plans and day-to-day operations. And historically, innovation has suffered from high failure rates, which adds to the challenge.
Consequently innovators find that generating new ideas and products is both exciting and laden with anxiety. To help reduce uncertainty and improve the chances of success, organizations need to get closer to consumers – to share in their lives, to hear the way they talk, to learn about their fears and hopes and to recognize what they really need and want. The implication is that organizations need to break down the walls they have happily erected between themselves and the outside world and to begin to commune with customers and work together with them. Enabled by technology, (although not dependent on it) co-creation enables firms not only to ask consumers their opinions, but to engage them fully in the process of conceiving, designing and developing new products and services.
Co-creation (which we define as an active, creative and social process based on collaboration between producers and users) is not the only way of reaching this high level of participation, but it has two important virtues.
First, it creates the possibility of recruiting the right individuals to participate – where ‘right’ means those who best match the innovation goals of the business. This is different from other forms of crowdsourcing, where anyone can contribute.
Second, it can involve people exploring beneath the surface of their lives to get to the real issues they face. Here time is the key factor, because by participating in workshops over several days or taking part in online communities over several months, people have the opportunity to express more of themselves and to develop their creativity. This depth helps change both the organization and participants as they act and see things in new ways.
The discomfort that comes with co-creation is that it confronts the belief inside the organization about knowledge. Managers easily assume they know almost everything about their brands and their customers. To opt for co-creation is almost an admission of failure. Yet, it seems clear that there is a big difference between a manager reading something in a report and working directly with consumers, who are often very sophisticated when it comes to brands and very good at generating brand aligned ideas when properly supported. As one telecom manager told us during our research, you can be surprised by the difference between how, as managers, you imagine people live, use services and connect with their friends, and the reality. The take-out here is that in future managers will have to learn to be better listeners and to practice humility. This doesn’t deny the importance of leadership, but it does suggest that co-creators need to recognize how smart consumers can be.
Adapted from the book Brand Together: How Co-creation Generates Innovation and Re-energizes Brands by Nicholas Ind, Clare Fuller and Charles Trevail. Kogan Page 2012.
Nicholas Ind is an established author, consultant and academic. He teaches at the Oslo School of Management and is a visiting professor at ESADE in Barcelona. He is coauthor of the new book Brand Together, written with Clare Fuller and Charles Trevail, founders of Promise – the world’s leading co-creation company.