As start-ups and small businesses flourish, digital commerce continues to boom and industry boundaries break down - "survival of the fittest" seems to be losing its relevance as a business mantra.
No longer can the corporate giants rely on being the leanest and meanest to stay at the top of their game. Amassing resources and expertise is no longer enough to guarantee success. To a large extent, it’s who and not what you know that matters. As one commentator puts it:
"Today, competitive advantage is not driven by the resources you control, but those you can access. Increasingly, rather than owning resources and capabilities outright, we use platforms to access ecosystems of technology, talent and information. The path to success no longer lies in clawing your way to the top of the heap, but in nudging your way to the center of the network."
That 'network' could be provided by like-minded individuals who offer complementary products or services that could add value for your own customers, or perhaps even by competitors with similar ideals and ethos. As small business owner Brigette Bard explains, even a small, niche company with a very specific audience, or an entrepreneur with no track record can compete against the big brands if they are prepared to collaborate.
"Small businesses face massive competition, ranging from global super-corporates and established market leaders to innovative entrepreneurs working out of their bedrooms. Sometimes it is the art of collaboration that gives SMEs a strategic advantage in a competitive marketplace."
Given the unrelenting march of globalisation and the fact that businesses today are disappearing six times faster than they were 40 years ago, being agile and responsive is crucial to gaining, and keeping, a strategic advantage.
While the infrastructure of huge enterprises can be clunky and cumbersome, smaller businesses that operate within a collaborative network can take decisions and adapt to new trends and customer bases with relative ease. As Jacob Morgan, futurist and best-selling author of The Future of Work, The Employee Experience Advantage and The Collaborative Organization, observes, the start-up economy means "individuals can do things it used to take a company to do".
Time and money
As well as saving time, working collaboratively can also lighten the financial burden - reducing the costs associated with new product development, for example - giving business owners access to new products and markets at the speed that today’s marketplace demands.
Clearly, the ability to innovate - whether by improving existing products, services or processes, or by generating new ones - is crucial to business success. While some of the impetus for this innovation can be drawn from within an organisation (and may even be driven by internal competition for recognition and success), it is widely accepted that the most valuable improvements are those that come from consumer feedback.
While competition suggests a win-lose situation in which data, contacts and other resources are hoarded and closely guarded, collaboration can be a win-win strategy because it permits the sharing of information and ideas. Achieving repeated innovation in this context is easier and faster than in a secretive, hyper-competitive environment because collective intelligence is an unrestricted resource that can be shared openly to spark ideas and create change.
Jacob Morgan recommends focusing on "customer advantage", rather than on the outdated concept of competitive advantage - or, in other words, on the strengths that draw customers to your business. By innovating and constantly updating what you do and how well you do it, he believes, you can compete successfully, even in a crowded marketplace.
But he notes that this doesn’t always happen without difficulty: "Getting people to share and not hoard information is the biggest cultural change [needed to foster collaboration]" he says. "These are definitely not natural behaviors for us since organizations are notorious for not encouraging these types of things."
In a blog examining the advantages of collaborative and competitive cultures, David Mizne says that creativity improves in a collaborative culture because people are able to access their higher brain functions instead of staying in "fight or flight" mode. Competitive environments, in contrast, "shut down the part of the brain that sparks those innovative thoughts which can keep businesses steps ahead of their competitors".
However, according to Ashley Merryman, co-author of Top Dog: the Science of Winning and Losing, it is competition that "fuels creativity and even improves the quality of the work produced". Moreover, Merryman asserts, "the skills that make you a great competitor - such as a willingness to push boundaries, trust one’s instincts, problem-solve - those are the same skills needed for innovation".
Cooperative competition and game theory
Is there, then, an argument for a kind of cooperative competition? It appears there is - there’s even a brand new word for it: coopertition, whereby businesses push one another to be more productive by working together, while also safeguarding each individual’s competitive advantage. This idea is rooted in game theory, which uses mathematical models to study human behaviour and interdependent decision-making.
It seems entirely possible, then, that competition and collaboration can co-exist. But elsewhere, the founders of Flock Global, a curated global network of entrepreneurs, envisage an alternative marketplace based completely on collaboration, "where business is done entirely collaboratively and people don’t seek to compete".
Flock Global’s proposition relies on there being a clear distinction between collaboration and competition - something that many business commentators would refute. If, in fact, collaboration is simply competition in a different form, there may still be some mileage in the principle of survival of the fittest. Because fitness, in this context, doesn’t have to be about one individual (business, product or entrepreneur) eliminating the competition; it can also be about joining with the competition to achieve success together.