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Are You In The Conversation Business?

August 26, 2011

Brands and businesses do not really have relationships between each other. A laser printer does not set up  meeting with the coffee machine and the old laptop case to have a chat about the relative costs of A4 paper. A delivery van does not have a workshop with a fork-lift truck to clarify a key delivery schedule. It is people -  and the conversation between them that drives business activity, ideas and progress. Businesses have a legal status, missions, KPI’s, logs, processes and systems.  But it is large complex, sometimes emotional, and often stressed ape like creatures such as you and me that do the talking and the listening.  No matter what you do,  or who you work for, if you’re in the business of marketing & innovation -  you are in the conversation business.

Can you collaborate without conversation? The short answer – is no. And the medium and long answer is no too. Collaboration is the heart of successful business partnerships, alliances and co-ventures – which in turn are viewed by many as the drivers of innovation in a complex and ever-changing landscape. As I’ve written about previously, connecting and adapting has always been at the heart of commercial endeavour – not invention and individual genius, that may however make a more interesting personal story.  Organisations want to innovate and collaborate – yet challenging, relevant and new conversations are still missing from their plans.  Collaboration is a hot conversation at the moment. The Harvard Business Review – from July-August 2011 devoted forty-three pages of excellent research and comment explaining why and how collaboration, both within and outside of the organisation works. (You can see HBR’s excellent work on collaboration here.) In it Yochai Benkler points out that as human beings we seek out collaboration and that science & psychologists now show we are less selfish than we once thought. A need for reciprocity and mutual self-interest is almost hard-wired into our biological responses. He quotes biologist Martin Nowak; “The most remarkable thing about evolution is its ability to generate cooperation in a competitive world”. A modern marketer with a focus on partnerships and alliances could not put it better – and as I often say, ‘partnerships give you collaborative advantage that is difficult, expensive – if not impossible to replicate’. Benkler summarises by saying; “adaptability, creativity and innovation appear to be the pre-conditions for organisations and individuals to thrive. We need people who aren’t only focused on pay-offs, but do their best to learn, adapt, improve and deliver results .. in a world where insight, creativity and innovation can come from anywhere”.

In another piece, Paul Adler points out the dangers of rabid culture of individualism; “It is quite possible for everyone to work hard as an individual without producing a good collective result”.  And in the same issue of HBR -  Ibarra and Hansen point out the importance of a collaborative business culture, that emphasises strong internal networking across traditional silos (and cultures) – as well as encouraging external thinking and discussion. They point to examples of this kind of culture in organisations such as Salesforce. com and General Electric. GE’s research from early 2011 identified that 86% of senior marketers view partnerships as the most important element of innovation and Beth Comstock, the Global CMO of General Electric is well-known as a champion of partnerships, alliances and collaboration which are now placed at the heart of GM’s strategy. Comstock was interviewed by Ibarra & Hansen and she sets out what a partnership philosophy means in practical terms; “I work hard to curate information that I don’t believe many at GE will have heard” – and tellingly, she goes on to say, “I probably spend half my time immersed in the worlds beyond GE and I hope this encourages my colleagues to be more externally focused”. So what’s the point of all this collaboration and conversations? Is it all just theory – or does it lead to tangible outcomes? Well, Comstock’s broad conversation with NASA led to firstly collaboration on research and then on to commercial discussions focused upon deals in health care and space technology. It’s about making that connection, starting the conversation and encouraging – a dialogue.

The real importance of conversation – and dialogue was reinforced to me again at a recent Knowledge Cafe in central London, coordinated once again by David Gurteen – where he asked a lively and eclectic cafe-crowd to consider and talk about three simple, key questions; 

  • How does conversation change the way we see the world?
  • Can conversation change the world for the better?
  • What do we need to do, to have such conversations?

(if you’d like to know more about how the Knowledge Cafe’s work – see my earlier post On Cafes & Conversation or visit David’s site at Gurteen.com ).

A Knowledge Cafe tries to eliminate the traditional point scoring, that is such a feature of our everyday conversations. It is a notion that is neatly expressed by the brilliant Theodore Zeldin and his famous quote; “A conversation doesn’t just shuffle the deck of cards – it creates new ones”.  The ‘Cafe’ format has been smartly honed by Gurteen as a way to  encourage the making of those new cards by stimulating dialogue rather than monologue. In addressing the above questions, the various groups shifted the conversation from how you define good and bad outcomes, to discussing (in a sign of the times) – how you engage in a conversation with looters. The idea was to explore and share knowledge. I ended the evening with as many new puzzling questions as answers – and as many new insights. But isn’t that the point of a good conversation? It leads you to a different view, adds insight and helps you play with ‘ a new card’ rather than flip over that same one again and again and again. And if you are trying to innovate, to explore, to create something fresh – isn’t that where your next conversation should start?

For more information about partnership marketing, alliance and high risk high value relationship management visit www.benchstone.co.uk – and for more articles and comment on innovation and collaboration see www.andrewarmour.com

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