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Breaking down the barriers to ecosystem collaboration


Breaking down the barriers to ecosystem collaboration

Published 26 December 2022 in Innovation • 5 min read

IMD Affiliate Professor of Innovation and Strategy Louise Muhdi examines the world of collaborative ecosystems and asks: When it comes to collaboration, does 1+1=3? 

To survive and thrive in this complex world, organizations need to become champions of collaboration. Creating value no longer takes place internally because no single organization has all the resources, tools and talents required to solve today’s new and complex challenges. Instead, value creation lies in collaborative ecosystems – environments in which different stakeholders, organizations, and individuals that share common interests and goals come together to move the needle on mutually agreed objectives.   

This requires a fundamental shift in mindset from traditional closed innovation thinking to one that embraces diversity of perspectives and value co-creation. To solve complex problems, organizations need to adopt a systems-thinking approach, which involves taking a step back to reveal and understand the myriad connections that exist within the ecosystem.  

This leads us to ask: how does an organization initiate ecosystem collaboration in the first place? And how does it sustain that collaboration over time?  

Where does collaboration begin?  

Before answering those questions, it is important to be clear about the benefits of successful collaboration in the ecosystem. The first and most important is that it can provide innovative solutions to complex problems. In essence, it is basic math: 1+1 = 3. Simple, right?  

But collaboration in the ecosystem also helps organizations to challenge assumptions and to shift from a “know it all” culture to a “learn it all” culture. Collaboration in the ecosystem helps to decrease risk aversion within an organization, replacing a “what do I stand to lose?” attitude with a “what do I stand to learn?” outlook. It can accelerate innovation and save organizations valuable time and money.  

Know your purpose  

A starting point for any organization – be it a corporation, firm, national government, local authority, not for profit, or any other entity – is to understand its own purpose. Ask yourself a simple question or two: why are we doing what we are doing? What value are we bringing to our work that others are not?  

Collaboration beyond the boundaries of the organization encourages experimentation and a willingness to test different ways of achieving goals.

Without a clear purpose that everyone understands, organizations cannot hope to venture out into the ecosystem with a profile that they can sell to others. Operating successfully within an ecosystem is, after all, all about finding the right matches; if you don’t know your own purpose, others will never understand your purpose, either. 

In 2013, Sascha Wischek, a University of Cambridge researcher, founded Fjuul. The startup has been collaborating with Swiss Mobiliar, a 200-year-old insurance cooperative, on digital health solutions. Together, these two very different organizations focus on health management at medium-sized companies, capturing biometric data that enables employees to monitor their own health while helping Swiss Mobiliar move closer to a so-called ‘predict and prevent’ health insurance model.  

Wischek attributes much of Fjuul’s success to having a clear understanding of its purpose, or, as he puts it, “speaking with stakeholders with one voice, as one team”. All of that makes it easier to collaborate on an equal footing with other organizations in the ecosystem.”   

Overcoming barriers 

In addition to having a clear purpose, successful collaboration requires trust, which has been developed through multiple interactions with a clear purpose over time. Only by doing this will it achieve meaningful communication, which then brings commitment and engagement – key ingredients needed to create trust.  

Trust is a pillar of collaboration in the ecosystem, and it serves as a reminder that collaboration is a commitment between people who rely on each other to achieve a shared goal. Collaboration is all about people, not technology; technology is useful, and it can be important, but it is just a means to an end. 


Why does successful collaboration in the ecosystem often prove so elusive? The simple answer is that there are plenty of barriers to collaboration. Take timelines, which startups typically see in terms of months compared with corporates, which view them in years. When it comes to metrics or KPIs – code for “what does success look like?” – startups and corporates can have wildly differing ideas. As for funding and financial resources, it can sometimes seem as if potential matches in the ecosystem are speaking different languages. 

Another potential roadblock is hierarchy. Successful collaboration in the ecosystem demands that everyone sitting around the table is equal. That does not mean that they all have the same qualities or the same responsibilities. Creating an environment that promotes equality between the partners allows them to look at each other straight in the eye, not up nor down. It ensures alignment, which in turn drives successful collaboration.  

One final potential stumbling block for collaboration in the ecosystem is ensuring that the right people are involved. Organizations today can be wildly complex with multiple departments and, commonly, many silos. Collaborating successfully requires involving not just the heads of an organization’s innovation arms but also the people within the organization who are implementing those technologies.  

Use the tools at your disposal 

To sustain collaboration, organizations can use different tools. Early in 2020, as COVID-19 ripped through the global economy, an Asia-based fintech faced a deluge of demand for electronic payments. The spike tested the company’s onboarding, troubleshooting, and other functions to the limit. Its response was to host short-burst, virtual collaboration modules to kickstart innovation and encourage a change in culture by asking engineers to think like product and customer relationship managers. For the first time, it brought together 200 employees via a five-day online program. The result? Silos began to crumble while traditional hierarchies and structures were rethought and reimagined.  

Such short-burst, virtual collaboration modules can help exercise an organization’s capacity to adapt. Equally important, they empower employees by inviting them to become agents of transformation in their own right. In short, they can develop collaboration capabilities and a collaborative mindset internally, which can then be used to sustain collaboration in the ecosystem.  

Organizations can also rely on enablers and matchmakers, which have evolved as ecosystems become increasingly complex. Kickstart Innovation, a Swiss ecosystem enabler, focuses on open innovation, networking, and learning. Based in Zurich, it matches rapidly growing startups with incumbents, building awareness of the many potential barriers that can exist between organizations in the ecosystem and helping potential collaborators to overcome them. In the process, Kickstart Innovation has been constructing its own ecosystem of collaboration support, including coaches and specialists who can be called on for assistance at different points along the collaboration journey.  

The world has changed, and it is no longer possible to lock your doors and expect your R&D department to solve problems on its own. Value creation has migrated from the organization to the ecosystem – and initiating and sustaining collaboration beyond the boundaries of the organization is therefore what enables them to create value. At the end of the day, it comes down to basic math.  


Louise Muhdi

Louise Muhdi

Affiliate Professor of Innovation and Strategy at IMD

Louise Muhdi is Affiliate Professor of Innovation and Strategy. She helps organizations adapt to uncertain and fast-changing business environments, drive innovation and growth, and sustain value creation for the long term. She has an MSc in biology and a PhD in technology and innovation management from ETH Zürich, Switzerland. Prior to joining IMD in 2019, Muhdi was Head of Innovation Strategy and Portfolio for Global Science and Technology at Givaudan International where she developed the global innovation strategy and implemented multiple strategic initiatives to drive short, mid, and long-term growth. She also spent several years in the pharmaceutical industry.


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