By Eric van Niekerk, Research Lead, Innocentrix

One of the biggest trends of the 21st century has been the emergence of social media. Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and a host of similar sites and apps took our social lives by storm.

Our current social ecosystems are often engaged through the use of these online connection systems, and we are no strangers to the concept. As South Africans, we also seem to value the use of such networks, with Facebook being the 2nd most visited website for South African internet users (second only to Google’s search page). Being connected, though, has value outside of a purely social perspective.

The business ecosystem

The concept of a “business ecosystem” is an idea that began to emerge in the early 90s and speaks to the fact that no business acts in a vacuum. Organisations all belong to a complex network of stakeholders, be it clients, competitors or suppliers. The interaction of all of these different and mostly independent entities can dramatically influence your business. Getting to know where your organisation fits into this ecosystem could be a very important step in aligning outcomes and goals to secure a positive future for your business.

Being aware of how changes to the environment can impact your business is an obvious advantage of ecosystem awareness. Another plus is the possibility of collaboration. Effective collaborative networks are often not easy to establish and collaboration outside of the boundaries of the organisation are often viewed as risky, but embracing the concept as a strategy for growth could open new paths to success.

The power of collaboration

The example of Apple is often heralded as a case study when talking product innovation, but their leadership position in this regard has a lot to do with their approach to collaboration. Consider the journey of Apple’s iPhone. The story goes that notorious innovator, Steve Jobs, didn’t like the plastic screens of other smartphones, and wanted a glass screen for the launch of the first iPhone. Through the use of his ecosystem, Jobs met with a board member of Corning Incorporated and Apple got introduced to new glass technologies in the process. This collaborative approach to problem solving catapulted both companies to runaway success.

South Africa has a lot of potential resting within the business landscape, with thousands of emerging SMME’s and entrepreneur looking to enter the market place. This creates a great place for organisations to find local solutions to problems they are facing. But, according to the latest publication by the Department of Trade and Industry, SMME’s face up to an 80% mortality rate within the first five years of operation. This does not bode well for small businesses or South Africa, considering the importance of an entrepreneurial spirit and its role in job creation and economic growth.

SMME’s often bring valuable services to the market, but a lack of suitable networks and valuable collaboration opportunities hinders growth. We are making some progress in this regard and collaborative platforms in various areas are seeing the light; for example

  • The Hookup Dinner – a nation-wide platform which allows start-ups to connect and engage with each other, as well as with industry leaders, in an informal dinner format
  • Maxum Mondays in support of SMME’s hosted weekly at The Innovation Hub and the related Innov8 sessions hosted on a regular basis
  • Innovation Union Events that fosters industry, government and academic collaboration and the establishment of new connections. Union events are typically described as an informal match-making platform in the form of a meet, greet, present and match, much like innovation speed dating. Union Events are hosted every quarter and is supported by an ecosystem engagement approach, brought to life by the Thinkubator
  • South African Innovation Network and SARIMA activities, events and breakfasts
  • Various workshops and conferences on the topic of innovation
  • Industry related activities by various financial institutions like Nedbank’s Small Business Seminars and the recent launch of Standard Bank’s new PlayRoom.

Collectively, we can do more – from an industry, government, academia and social perspective – to encourage effective network building and the creation of platforms in support thereof. Innovation does not happen in isolation and, like Apple demonstrated, breakthroughs are more likely when we get good at collaborative innovation.

The organisation of the future will know how to effectively build an innovation ecosystem and how to engage with their external stakeholders in support of innovative outcomes for real growth.