Open Innovation: To Cooperate or Collaborate –That is the Question

One of the major findings in mankind’s history is realizing the value of working together. Without it we would have starved to death about 100 000 years ago because a single man going hunting is very inefficient (I know – I am a hunter). We have also seen a very strong correlation between the amount of innovations happening and the number of people who are interconnected in the society during the course of the years.

Of course this is also valid for us at in the current society.  It is really essential to cooperate or collaborate to be successful in innovation nowadays. The story of the lone genius is a myth. Edison did NOT find out things by himself. That was teamwork as well in those days.

Today we have 3 dominant megatrends in innovation; Insighting, Business Model innovation and Open Innovation.

The last one is totally built upon cooperation ….or actually on collaboration … or ….yeah, what do we mean really? What is the difference between the two?  Let us first look at what Wikipedia tells us:

Cooperation: “The process of working or acting together…. In its simplest form it involves things working in harmony, side by side…. It is the alternative to working separately in competition.

Collaboration: “An iterative process where two or more people, units or companies together to realize shared goals, for example, an intellectual endeavor that is creative in nature—by sharing knowledge, learning and building consensus.”

It seems that Cooperation is an efficiency measure, meaning “doing things the right way” for cost or time saving reasons. The involved parties both have need for a similar resource, and find commercial benefits in sharing that resource… but they usually have two different goals to achieve. That is why we also have the expression “Coopetition” where two competing entities can work together, or cooperate, because they both prosper on pooling of some their resources. A cooperation between two entities is a temporary situation that is dissolved when their respective goals are achieved. To make it work you do not need all too much trust. You just need fairness, knowing that the other will stick to his/her part of the deal and invest as much resources/time/money as you agreed upon in the first end. Sometimes a cooperation ends due to that one of the parties has a feeling of an asymmetry in the result of the cooperation, i.e. one gains much more than the other.

In Collaboration though, each of the entities put in sufficient different resources needed to achieve a common goal. Competences are usually complementary, whereas in cooperation you share the same competence. Collaboration is then more of an effectiveness measure, meaning “doing the right things” to achieve something with a higher value than one party could do alone. The mutual dependency is stronger.

To collaborate in a good way you really have to be really committed to the shared goal and not only participating to achieve your part of it. Trust is a must, as you can’t achieve the goal by yourself. A good collaboration includes an expectation that the reward for having achieved the shared goal (in whatever form it is, such as fame, status, appreciation or money) is also shared in fair way. Lacking this – we will get distrust and further attempts to restart a collaboration is hard.

The moral is: Open innovation works OK with cooperation, but even better with collaboration. To be able to collaborate again you need to secure a sustainable trust, reconfirmed by a “fair” split of the results of the preceding collaboration. Remember to set this split before the collaboration starts….

By Bengt Järrehult

About the Author

Bengt Järrehult, PhD and recently appointed as Fellow Scientist Innovation at SCA, is Director of Innovation and Knowledge Management at the SCA headquarters in Sweden. Apart from his daily work at SCA, Dr Järrehult is also an adjunct professor in Innovative Packaging Logistics at the Lund Technical University teaching in Innovation Engineering and Packaging as well as a visiting professor in Innovation at the Institution of Economic Research at the Lund University. He is also a regular lecturer at Chalmers University in Gothenburg for students in the masters program of Management and Economics of Innovation.

  • Omar P, DR.

    Sharp as a knife. I think that trust is a keyword here and the reason why it is so hard to collaborate when there is so much to win from it!

  • Verna Allee

    Very well said!  Collaboration requires a shared understanding (even negotiation) of both the tangible and intangible value exchanges that support the work. Trust is an outcome of crystal clear expectations. 

  • Bengt Jarrehult

    Very interesting to see teh interest in the chronicle :-). To deal with the TRUST first, there is an interesting phenomena called  ”altruistic punishment”. Google it and read! Some people mean that this is what keeps society together, it is, in a way, the principles that govern how to deal with those who are selfish and use the open mind and will to collaborate among “normal people”.

    Secondly, if you are interested in the different steps or ways to work together, check out a book by Cook “Enterprise 2.0: How Social Software Will Change the Future of Work”.
    I have made a blog that deals with this in a way where I define ” the 7 – Co-tions of interaction”, all starting with “Co-” and all ending with “-tion”. They are
    Cognition – the way to be aware of externals solutions
    Connection – where you start to look for a date with the other
    Communication – a 2 way system of course
    Coordination – usually where you start harmonizing activities
    Cooperation – mentioned above, made for efficiency, pooling resources
    Collaboration – where you really trust enough to have a common goal
    Co-creation – a very popular word, which highlights what is achieved jointly

    Please click on the Image below for a visual

    All the best// Bengt