Does Collaborative Innovation work?

Yes, and No!

K. Ananth Krishnan, CTO, TCS

I remember the time, nearly nine years ago when we conceptualized the TCS Co-Innovation Network (COINTM), and then formally launched it a couple of years later. In retrospect, it was a big move for us. We were celebrating the Silver Jubilee of our oldest and largest Research Lab, the Tata Research Development and Design Center (TRDDC) at Pune, India. TRDDC had grown to be a premier research organization, with several streams of software and process research. It was creating innovative solutions not just for TCS, but other Tata companies as well. So we were really used to “inventing our ownstuff”. Stepping out and looking for collaborations from the outside needed a big change in mindset for us.

Collaborative Innovation sounded strong as strategy. But there were many grey areas: how would we bundle offerings? How much of our effort would lie on top of what we were going to shop around for? How would we share IP? Was win-win possible at all? As a big market leader we couldn’t match the agility and risk taking capacity of a tiny start-up. But they didn’t have our scale and ‘process maturity’ either! Would there ever be a sweetspot? TCS had good innovation teams; how would we encourage them to look outside? Would our business units be able to convince our customers? In short, several ‘process’ areas needed to be ironed out.

Lastly, we needed to build the right ecosystem and the right partners based on mutual, ‘selfish’ interest. Classic Open Innovation strategies would dictate ‘Open Call’ (e.g. Challenge driven ecosystems: TCS has a specific problem, we publish it, invite several potential partners to ‘bid’ with their solutions, we pick 1-2 winners and solve our problems, the winners share the rewards), or ‘Open Search’ (e.g. Theme driven innovation portfolios, where TCS names a few areas of interest, and invites multiple players to the table, and builds a set of solutions in each theme), or ‘Co-Create (e.g. TCS, a customer and one or more partners build a solution of mutual interest, validate it, and build a mutually valuable market model). TCS has used all three models, sometimes in parallel. The ecosystem initially was all ‘Silicon Valley’, but today extends to Europe, Israel, India, Australia and New Zealand.

The TCS Co-Innovation Network has had successes. This has happened where the technology was disruptive and the partner was small. Good collaborations have happened where the mutual need was very strong and there was a distinct go-to-market opportunity, such as a massive Request for Proposal.

We have also had our learning. Quite often we are not able to tie things quickly enough to meet customer expectations; in lean periods customers are hesitant to sign up for niche technologies that emerging tech companies bring forth or the revenue sharing doesn’t fall into place as budgets are tight. The magical new product doesn’t scale in real world environments.

My take on this would be: Co-innovation isn’t quick fix. Once or twice solutions can be slapped together and the big company and small one can shake hands and pose for pictures. But for Co-Innovation to work as a sustained model in your innovation framework, you need patience, process maturity and transparency in go-to-market strategies. Close to a decade at this, we are still learning and evolving better collaboration models.

But one nice fallout of our co-innovation strategy is the TCS Innovation Forum. The Forum serves as a confluence of our co-innovation partners: we get to meet our emerging technology partners, our venture fund partners, academic research collaborators and our customers. The discussions here are not so much show and tell experiences, but a sharing of many thoughts on highs and lows of new technologies, in a pretty neutral and open way.

Through the years we have talked about diverse topics: gird computing, greening IT, Improving user experiences, simplifying IT infrastructures, SAAS, agility as well as domain based subjects such as IT for drug discovery, IT for manufacturing and so on. We have had good discussions: pain points, suggestions, wish lists and collaboration options. We have had some really eminent speakers, especially from Academia… Prof. Jeanne Ross, Prof. John Mitchell, Prof. Lior Pachter, Prof. Steven Brenner, Prof. Sandy Pentland, and Prof. Mary Jean Harrold, and our Research Advisory Board members Prof. Jeff Ullman and Prof. V S Subrahmanyam. These discussions have helped us understand our ecosystem better.

Our COIN partners have had very good take-aways too. This year we shall be seeing more of them. You will too… See you at the Forum!

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