The adage about keeping your friends close has taken on new meaning in the current world of business. Jason Kelley, Global Managing Partner and Strategic Partnership Lead, IBM Consulting, believes that today, organizations need to work with an ecosystem of partners to succeed, even if they’re competitors.

A partner ecosystem approach upends the traditional paradigm of competition among enterprises, moving away from bitter rivalries toward a more fluid and collaborative path to success. “It’s not competition,” Kelley says. “It’s ‘coopetition.’” When the outcomes are mutually beneficial, there is no reason companies shouldn’t collaborate. “Yes, we do compete in certain areas. But we’re also going to knock it out of the park together in other areas,” he says.

Teaming up to tackle big challenges

In today’s market, the ecosystem approach often gives crucial access to research, new technologies and competencies that an enterprise wouldn’t otherwise have. For those wary of this approach, a strong ecosystem is often the differentiator between similar offerings. “If I’m competing with you, my offering has to be better than yours,” Kelley says. “But an offering can be better if a company’s ecosystem is better than its competitors’ — if it’s more interactive, or if it allows the company to get its product to market faster.”

Creating a network of strong strategic partners is just the beginning. Enterprises need to be able to direct and manage the right collaborators to achieve the desired outcomes. “It’s all about the chef,” Kelley says. “It’s how you make sure you have the ingredients, but also that you bring them together in the right way to orchestrate the outcomes where one plus one equals three.”

For IBM, this means orchestrating business strategies and opportunities with an ecosystem that includes market leaders, like Adobe, Celonis, Microsoft, Salesforce, SAP and Workday, as well as infrastructure partners like Amazon Web Service (AWS), Google, Microsoft Azure and IBM’s own technologies. “Success is a team sport,” Kelley says. “It takes an offense and a defense, and it takes a manager and a referee. We bring all that together.” Kelley advocates harnessing a human-centered design process like IBM’s Garage methodology to align partners on mutually beneficial outcomes and define the strategies they’ll use to achieve them.

“Coopetition” fueled by challenges

Coopetition is particularly important given the complexity of the challenges enterprises face in today’s digital world, which often make it impossible to go it alone. “There never was a silver bullet,” Kelley says. “There’s definitely not one now.”

During the COVID-19 pandemic, for example, digital tools and experiences became key to competitive advantage, and success demanded an ecosystem approach. In 2020, Audi UK partnered with IBM to improve the customer experience within its digital platforms and tools. IBM led a digital transformation using the IBM Garage methodology that enabled Audi to deliver customer advantages—like a test drive–booking application—75% faster.

As part of the transformation, IBM tapped its partnership with Adobe, implementing Adobe Experience Manager to deliver tools to customers and Adobe Analytics to build a platform for data-based performance evaluation and marketing insight. As a result, Audi increased lead generation by 59% at a time when car sales in the U.K. dropped by 29% overall.

Similarly, IBM worked with Swiss watch company TAG Heuer to create online shopping experiences that cultivated personalized relationships with customers — an especially important aspect of the luxury watch market. IBM transformed TAG Heuer’s Salesforce implementation to turbocharge the company’s ability to provide bespoke customer experiences, such as sending messages and gifts for birthdays and special occasions. Under seemingly impossible circumstances, TAG Heuer saw triple-digit growth in 2020.

Four critical areas that lead to success

For enterprises, there is no shortage of complex challenges and customer demands that require a collaborative response involving multiple stakeholders. Kelley notes four areas of disruption where ecosystem partnerships will be critical to success:

  • Military operations: In December 2022, the US Department of Defense awarded contracts for a new cloud architecture called the Joint Warfighting Cloud Capability (JWCC) to Google, Oracle, Amazon Web Services and Microsoft. The partnership, reportedly valued at around $9 billion, speaks to the critical role of ecosystem partnerships in operations of this size, scope and importance. Kelley notes that the capability to align and manage these partners will be crucial. “They made an ecosystem decision,” Kelley says. “Now, they’re going to have to make a decision about how to implement and orchestrate that ecosystem.”
  • Sustainability: Strong sustainability strategies require partnerships to provide the broad range of services, technologies and expertise needed, and those partnerships need to endure and evolve. “Sustainability isn’t a thing you solve,” Kelley says. “It doesn’t stop.” IBM Consulting might tap into very diverse relationships to craft a sustainability strategy. This includes IBM-owned companies such as Envizi for carbon measurement, data management and reporting and The Weather Company for prediction and decision-making around weather-related events, IBM’s own technologies for artificial intelligence (AI), automation and intelligent workflows, and partners like Celonis for process mining. 
  • Supply chain: When there is global supply chains disruption, something as seemingly simple as moving a product from point A to point B becomes more complex for providers. “There are so many players across multiple industries,” Kelley says. “There’s not one technology or team that can do it alone.” He says that strengthening supply chains can involve orchestrating partnerships with Oracle and SAP, along with leveraging IBM’s own capabilities with next-generation cloud computing, sensors, IoT and solutions like FRDM to evaluate fair labor practices.
  • Cost containment: Companies are looking to reduce spending in a time of economic uncertainty, but cost containment doesn’t have to mean layoffs, cutting corners or putting a digital transformation project on hold. Kelley says the key is doing more with less. He offers the example of Reckitt, the parent company of consumer brands like Air Wick and Lysol. Working with IBM, Reckitt discovered that many of its factory machines received a maintenance check once a week, whether they needed it or not. By combining edge computing, SAP and Microsoft Azure cloud infrastructure, Reckitt is now able to identify problems on the line immediately without needless weekly evaluations, saving millions in maintenance costs.

Complexity requires coopetition

Kelley emphasizes that coopetition, though seemingly counterintuitive, is not just a necessity when facing complex challenges. It is a shared advantage that creates new possibilities. “We reduce the opportunity in the market when we focus on competition rather than collaboration,” he says. “There’s more than enough pie. We’ve got to make the pie bigger and quit trying to figure out how to slice it up.”

Learn more about IBM Consulting’s capabilities in orchestrating ecosystem partnerships.

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