Moving partnerships: from cutting costs to creating experiences

The first thing that comes to mind when partnerships are mentioned, are ideas of getting access to a partner’s scale of operations, or to some unique competence they have. Both could have implications for making your business run more efficiently.

You look at your production process, and figure out what parts of that process are lagging on your end, and can be taken over by a partner.

Pharma companies like Johnson & Johnson for instance, outsource parts of the process for clinical trial in this way. They leverage patient organisations for mobilising testing subjects, or universities to support and combine research and analysis.

Although it’s effective, this is still a conventional application of partnerships. These activities, make Johnson & Johnson run better, creating, and shipping products at a higher pace. But they don’t make the business run any different in a sector that is challenged by rising insurance costs to patients, and increasing dissatisfaction over the quality of medical care.

The other way
Things are changing in the world of business collaboration. It’s becoming easier to experiment with partnership linkages and coordinate them through new technology, even when crossing over industry boundaries. Companies forging partnerships like Spotify & Uber, or Yummly & Instacart are doing just that, hunting for new opportunities to bring their existing products into new customer experiences. These partnerships enhance existing products and services in new ways: Personalise your taxi experience with the music of your choice, or get within-the-hour home delivery of the ingredients you need for that recipe you found.

In order to enable partnerships to create value through new customer experiences, partnership design needs to shift away from conventional thinking in terms of the production process, its associated steps, and then determining who can do it more efficiently, and effectively.

The alternative is to look at the full customer journey: from how customers discover your product or service, to how and when they use it, to when they finish with it. From this overview the partnering question becomes different. It turns from “where can you make our company run more efficiently?”, to “where can you add to or deepen our customers’ experience?”. A decisive change in reasoning that can overhaul a business model.


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Transfer activity in partnerships: providing mutual access to each others business models

One of the most frequently recurring questions I get during partnership design workshops is about the transfer activity: “What is it? Can you give me an example?”

In this blog post I will therefore dive a bit deeper into this building block. Firstly, I will describe a bit about the building block’s background. Then I’ll describe what the crucial role is of the transfer activity in distributing value between partners.

Background on transfer activity.
Partnerships enable the access, and flow of resources between partners (Mowery et al. 1996). Part of creating this flow is based on synergy between the resources that partners bring in: what’s their polar attraction, and how strong is it? The other part comes from building the conduits through which partners can connect these resources. How will they provide each partner with access to the resources, and enable them to create value with the partnership. This is where the notion of transfer activity comes in.

Transfer activity describes how exchange of knowledge, technology, and other value elements between partners takes place. Transfer could occur in the form of in-person collaboration between people from both sides of the partnership. It could also be in the form of a more structural (technology) platform where partners can access resources independently, based on prior agreement in their partnership designs.

An appropriate metaphor would be to use a certain stage in a relationship between people. Say you’re taking your relationship to the next level, beyond just dating, and you’ll be inviting each other over to your houses frequently. Now the questions is how will you let each other in? Will you exchange copies of the key, or will it be a string through the door at agreed times? Both provide access, but the nature of the transfer is very different, and important to understand, and agree upon upfront.

Distributing value in a partnership through the transfer activity
The transfer activity has a key role in the partnership. There’s a reason it’s positioned in the middle of the Partnership Canvas (see diagram below). Essentially it has two functions. Firstly, transfer activity connects the value elements that partners put into the partnership. Secondly, it enables the creation of the new form of value that each partner takes back to his or her own business model. Lets look at both of these roles a bit closer.

Screen Shot 2016-05-24 at 09.58.53
A full overview of a partnership with the Business Models of both partners (rectangles), and the Partnership Model (triangles) with the Transfer Activity (highlighted)

The first role of the transfer activity is to connect the desired assets with the value offer. There are two general approaches to set up this mode of transfer:

  1. Interpersonal collaboration.
    In this case your partnership depends on joint coordination and decision making a lot. An example of such a partnership is Nespresso and its machine manufacturers, like Krups and DeLonghi. Their collaboration depends on joint design of (new) machines, and setting up the appropriate marketing that fits both of their channels.
  2. Access via specifically structured technology
    Many information technology partnerships use rule-based transfer activities. Partners define the access that each can have to data, and other forms of IP through agreements on access permissions, and use. In a collaboration like Lyft and Didi in China you’ll see such a transfer activity. Lyft users can hail Didi taxis in China through use of the Lyft app. The transfer activity is an automatic transfer of the order from one system to the other.

When designing options for this transfer, it is important to also take a temporal consideration on the exchange of value. Will the transfer be a frequent, and recurring activity? Or is it more likely going to be a limited and short-term action?

These questions help point to a critical aspect of duration for the partnership. In the case of frequent, and recurring interaction, partners remain dependent on each other for value creation, like in the examples of Nespresso and Lyft above.

In the latter case of limited, or short-term collaboration, dependency expires due to gradual learning and other forms of value appropriation that takes place on both sides of the table. The Tesla-Toyota partnership is a good example here. This partnership expired when Tesla internalized the process of mass manufacturing for their Model S, which Toyota engineers helped them get started with, and Toyota engineers learned about Tesla’s battery technology.

The second role of the transfer activity is to create a new form of value, which can be inserted and activated in each partner’s business model. Taking the examples above again, the Nespresso transfer activity would create the offering of the Nespresso machine as part of the value proposition. Also, it helps create the content that will stream through the partners’ market channels. In the case of Lyft and Didi, the partnership gives Lyft an extension of their active geography to their existing users. For Didi it means a new channel, tapping into a new customer base of travelers coming from the US to China.

Conclusion
What I see happen a lot is that partners define synergy, and then tend leave their partnership designs at that, assuming everything else will fall into place after. They neglect to define how they will actually grant each other access to each others resources, and how they will create the actual value that is needed to run their business models better. They’ll likely be confronted with the problem of deciding how to exchange value and differences in perspectives on that, very late, if not too late, in the game.

So, setting up a solid mode for transfer activity, and addressing this discussion early on in the design process is crucial. Take time in the dialogue with your partner to figure out the transfer activity, and make sure that you understand from each other how you will collaborate in your exchange of value.

Literature reference:
Mowery, D., Oxley, J., and Silverman, B. (1996) “Strategic Alliances and Interfirm Knowledge Transfer”, Strategic Management Journal, Vol. 17 (Winter Special Issue), p. 77-91


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