In the 1960s and 70s, Route 128 outside of Boston was the center of technology, but by the 1990s Silicon Valley had taken over and never looked back. As AnnaLee Saxenian explained in Regional Advantage, the key difference was that while Route 128 was a collection of value chains, Silicon Valley built an ecosystem.
Clearly, ecosystems are even more important today than they were back then. In fact, a recent study by Accenture Strategy found that ecosystems are a “cornerstone” of future growth and that 60% of executives surveyed viewed ecosystems as a way to disrupt their industry. A similar number saw them as key to increasing revenue.
The problem is that competing successfully in an ecosystem environment is vastly different than a traditional value chain strategy. While a value chain is driven by efficiencies, an ecosystem is driven by connections in a network. So we need to do more than adapt our strategy and tactics, we need to learn how to play a whole new game. The first step is to learn what the rules are.
First, Start Early
One of the key aspects of ecosystems is that they don’t seem all that important at first. By the time it becomes clear that a change is underway, it is often too late to adapt. The demise of Boston’s technology companies is a great example of how that can happen. Dominant firms such as DEC, Data General and Wang Laboratories found themselves irrelevant so quickly that they never recovered.
Network scientists call this an instantaneous phase transition and it happens because connections tend to form slowly. They start as isolated clusters that, even taken in sum, don’t seem to amount to much. However, when those clusters connect, a cascade ensues and what once seemed inconsequential suddenly becomes predominant.
That’s why it’s so important to become active in an ecosystem before those clusters connect, when things are moving relatively slowly, everybody wants to talk to you and the price of admission is still fairly cheap. Once an ecosystem begins to thrive, things move much faster and costs for entry raise exponentially.
Consider the automobile industry, which is now spending billions to set up research centers in Silicon Valley. Just think of how much cheaper — and more effective — it would have been for those companies to have started 20 or 30 years ago.
Not Just Spinning Out, But Spinning In
A typical strategy for an enterprise looking to leverage an ecosystem is to spin out a division to focus on activities that are relevant to it. These spinoffs tend to have a lot more in common with the ecosystem firms than the parent company and therefore are much more able to connect. However, because links to the parent company become more tenuous over time, benefits are limited.
A potentially more successful strategy is to spin ecosystem firms in. For example, the National Labs have set up programs like Cyclotron Road, Chain Reaction and Innovation Crossroads that invite entrepreneurial firms to come work at the labs, make use of the scientific facilities and be mentored by top scientists.
In the private sector, corporate venture capital operations, as well as incubators and accelerators, can be a great way to connect with small entrepreneurial companies early in the ecosystem lifecycle. Beyond the actual investments made, these programs give you the opportunity to connect with hundreds of small firms, some of which can become important partners, suppliers and customers later on.
What’s crucial is that you are not seen as an interloper, but a true source of value, whether that value is in actual monetary investment, access to facilities and expertise or connection to points of market access. What may be insignificant to your company may be incredibly valuable to a small, entrepreneurial firm.
Maintaining Open Nodes
One of Saxenian’s most interesting findings in Regional Advantage was how differently the Boston technology firms treated outsiders compared to the Silicon Valley companies. The Boston firms were vertically integrated and sought to keep everything in-house. The Silicon Valley companies, on the other hand, thrived on connection.
For example, in Silicon Valley if you left your employer to start a company of your own, you were still considered part of the family. Many new entrepreneurs became suppliers or customers to their former employers and still socialized actively with their former colleagues. In Boston, if you left your firm you were treated as a pariah.
When technology began to shift in the 80s and 90s, the Boston firms had little, if any, connection to the new ecosystems that were evolving. In Silicon Valley, however, connections to former employees acted as an antenna network, providing early market intelligence that helped those companies adapt.
So while it is necessary to reach out to evolving ecosystems, it is just as important to ensure that there are also paths for small entrepreneurial firms to engage within your enterprise. Ecosystems thrive on personal connections. Those may not show up on a strategic plan or a balance sheet, but they are just as important as any other asset.
The New Competitive Advantage
Ever since Harvard professor Michael Porter published his seminal book, Competitive Strategy in 1980, strategists have sought advantage through driving efficiencies in order to maximize bargaining power against customers, suppliers, substitute goods and new market entrants. By doing so, they could achieve higher margins and invest in greater efficiencies, creating a virtuous cycle.
Yet today things move much too fast for that kind of chess game. To compete in a networked world, you must constantly widen and deepen connections. Instead of always looking to maximize bargaining power, you need to look for opportunities to co-create with customers and suppliers, to integrate your products and services with potential substitutes and form partnerships with new market entrants.
Power no longer resides at the top of value chains, but rather at the center of networks and collaboration has become the new competitive advantage. Value is no longer merely a target for extraction, but an asset for connection. You need to be seen to be adding value to the ecosystem in order to get value out.
The truth is that we can no longer manage for stability, we must manage for disruption. We can’t predict the future, but we can connect to it, nurture it and profit from it. Yet to do so requires far more than a simple shift in strategy and tactics. It requires a fundamental change in mindset.