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Friday, April 17, 2020

Dancing with Gorillas in Turbulent Times

By Shameen Prashantham

A large-scale crisis – such as the 2020 coronavirus pandemic – can (and must) bring out the best in humanity. In the midst of much undeniable strife, myriad organisations around the world have been racing against time to come up with valuable innovations, including start-ups from California to Bangalore and Singapore, that are generating new solutions or making existing ones available. Some of these efforts, including by the European Union, involves bringing together small and large organisations to achieve outcomes that neither can accomplish on their own.

However, while these initiatives are laudable, a note of caution may be in order. My research for over a decade on corporation-start-up partnering – which I refer to as “dancing with gorillas” – points to a paradox: while there is scope for win-win relationships between small and large organisations by tapping their relative strengths (for instance, one has scale and the other speed) the very differences that make them attractive to each other also make it difficult to work together.

Therefore it is important to thoughtfully harness partnering between large and small organisations in turbulent times. The following are three partnering strategies that can help.

Leverage the urgency of a crisis to focus the mind on the specific potential synergy

The prospect of a win-win is all too often a vague idea. Being clear about the synergy is important. In some cases, it may be that the small firm addresses a pain point of the larger organisation.

Consider HiNounou, a Shanghai-based start-up founded by French entrepreneur Charles Bark that offers a home wellness kit for seniors comprising genomic testing, medical devices and AI-enabled telemedicine which helps people keep in touch with elderly relatives remotely, and monitor the risk of chronic diseases. This start-up, which has consistently partnered with large corporations, has accelerated its partnering efforts with French multinational St Gobain and used its expertise to urgently provide them with anti-corona survival kits that include masks and disinfectant gel.

In other cases, the synergy stems from a venture utilising a large organisation’s technological building blocks. Sehat Kahani is a Pakistani start-up founded by Dr Sara Saeed (CEO) and Dr Iffat Zaffar (COO) that uses telemedicine to provide remote medical advice to patients while at the same time tapping the underutilised capacities of women doctors. This start-up’s relationship with Microsoft has helped it rapidly scale its mobile app and gain traction owing to the coronavirus crisis. Participating in large corporations’ partner ecosystems provides support in the scaling process, and in this case the timing was opportune in terms of social impact, with the urgency of the situation making the synergy even clearer and eliciting quick decisions from both parties.

Leverage expertise in interfaces between large and small organisations

Recognising synergy is one thing, working together is quite another – due to vast structural and organisational differences. Some large organisations have worked hard to establish partner interfaces with start-ups such as corporate accelerators (cohorts) or pitching competitions (funnels). The expertise to build effective corporation-start-up interfaces can help to accelerate collaboration between these dissimilar organisations in turbulent times.

To illustrate, Gregor Gimmy and Matthias Meyer, the co-founders of BMW Start-up Garage, deployed their interfacing expertise in their current outfit, 27pilots, to set up Start-ups Against Coronavirus. This interface enables start-ups to address large organisations’ crisis-induced pain points in areas such as remote work, virtual events and supply chain management, among others. For their part, large corporations are able to rapidly obtain solutions from (often well-funded) innovative start-ups, thus becoming their “venture clients”. For example, Leena AI, an Indian start-up, quickly developed a COVID-19 HR chat-bot, which is being deployed by LafargeHolcim, a large Swiss cement manufacturer – an outcome enabled by this initiative’s interfacing expertise.

Leverage pre-crisis exemplars of partnering between large and small organisations

Despite the best intentions, moving quickly during troubled times may not be easy. Proven success stories of small-large firm partnering may be well placed to hit the ground running in a crisis. An African start-up illustrates this well. When I visited Bayer’s G4A digital health team in Berlin a couple of years ago, the last thing I expected was to learn about a start-up from Ghana that had participated in its accelerator. Bisa (which means “ask” in the Twi language), is a mobile app that allows people to get medical advice. Conceived during the Ebola crisis by a young technology entrepreneur, Raindolf Owusu, who has been referred to as the Larry Page of Ghana, this young firm has enhanced its capabilities and visibility by partnering with Bayer. In the midst of the coronavirus crisis, Bisa has been offering a lot of free advice and information dissemination to the public in Ghana and Senegal.

Although the bonds of our strong relationships with family and friends are especially valuable in times of crisis, bridges built with highly dissimilar actors can also create value in such a period – and efforts to do this prior to a crisis can bear fruit during turbulent times. Israel’s Sheba Hospital, a medical centre with valuable expertise in partnering with start-ups through its ARC Innovation Center, was able to rapidly mobilise start-up ideas via a coronavirus hackathon. This example, and those of start-ups like Bisa, Hinounou and Sehat Kahani, show how pre-crisis investments in social capital with dissimilar actors help organisations respond rapidly and collaboratively to a societal crisis.

To conclude, the ability to partner with dissimilar actors represents an important means of coping resiliently and flexibly with a large-scale crisis; those that have it ought to leverage it, and support those that don’t. It is a capability that pays off in the best – and worst – of times. And it provides hope for a post-crisis decade when the world economy rebuilds and continues its pursuit of the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals.

This article originally appeared on Thinkers50’s website here. Shameen Prashantham is an Associate Professor of International Business and Strategy at CEIBS. For more on his teaching and research interests, please visit his faculty profile here.

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