Co-creation is gaining ground as a management paradigm in public and private organizations. The cooperation approach is considered as a way to find answers on complex problems and to develop innovative solutions.
The purpose is to benefit society in general as well as citizens, customers, private companies, and particular groups of interest, which have some kind of relation to the problem or the solution.
what does the co-creation paradigm enable us to do, that could not have been done before?
The question arises: what does the co-creation paradigm enable us to do, that could not have been done before? Moreover, is your organization ready to harvest the value of the new cooperation approach?
In this article, you hear about some overlooked dilemmas in the understanding of co-creation projects. Additionally, you are advised on how to prepare your organization to reap the benefits as a partner in a co-creation project.
What is New about the Co-Creation Paradigm?
Creating together is not a new phenomenon in itself. Yet by developing co-creation as a paradigm, the management approach gets a more strategic sight. In other words, we get a theoretical understanding of what needs to be present when we work as co-creators.
The fundamental co-creation idea is for an organization to join a partnership to solve specific huge and complex issues, which cannot be solved by one partner alone. The issues are usually interfaced across professional and sectoral boundaries. Often certain groups of interest and users are closely involved in the process.
Problems to be solved may concern anything from handling environment challenges, patient care in hospitals, surviving in local communities and development of new products and solutions.
The idea is, that all of the involved partners contribute with insights and get a share of the created value.
An example could be the development of a new waste management system. The community gets a solution where more people sort their trash, which allows a more efficient recycling process. Since users are involved in the test phase, they take on ownership in relation to the solution. Moreover, insights into user behavior increase the producers’ knowledge about how they can optimize the solution even further, adding another advantage in terms of selling the waste management system. Finally, the waste collectors get a better solution, which implies fewer lifts and so forth.
Characteristics of the Co-Creation Paradigm
The definition of co-creation is often vague and unspecific. It does, however, consist of the common features: Creating value is a core element. There has to be a higher purpose of common societal interest, and at the same time, the involved partners must all experience value. Co-creation, therefore, builds on the common interests of the partners. The cooperation requires openness towards new and different perspectives as well as transparency regarding the working methods and interests of the partners.
The paradigm has been seen as an alternative to the competitive management paradigm and promotes a cooperative approach. Both public and private companies use this approach to encourage their intentions of ‘working together’ in favor of a specific societal problem, which has an impact to both the society, businesses bottom lines, the end users, and citizens.
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The stories about successful co-creation projects show, how it is possible to create societal value together while also creating value for the partners involved. What these stories do not tell, however, is the underlying conflicts, frustrations, and discrepancies, which also is a part of the story for those working with co-creation projects.
Unfortunately, when projects are accomplished and the successes are celebrated, we tend to disregard the learning opportunities that rest in unintended results and outcomes, which are also a part of all projects. This is a pity because it is in view of these specific processes we can learn what are the pros and cons of the co-creative project paradigm as such.
A Study of a Co-Creation Project
How is value created in co-creation projects? This is exactly the question I examined in my master thesis. I wanted to find out how the partners understand value, how they see their own role in the project, and how legitimacy and support about the project is created.
The co-creation project, which I examined, concerned a school renovation. Some classrooms were in need of better indoor climate, and the project explored a new holistic approach to renovating schools.
Companies with specific skills within the areas of ventilation, ceilings, and windows were invited. Moreover, researchers and analysts participated to measure the effects of the new equipment. A consultancy company was handling user surveys and involvement of teachers and pupils, who also used the project in their teaching sessions. Finally, an architect company was involved to manage the enterprise and interior design.
Value comes in many Shapes
The overall societal value in the project was to create a better indoor climate for pupils and teachers and thereby develop better learning environments. The purpose of the project was initiated by the teachers’ union together with the municipality. The remaining partners joined the project later on when the project was formally formulated as a co-creative project.
According to the theory, one would, therefore, expect, that this first defined value – better indoor climate for pupils and teachers – was the main understanding of the value in the project among stakeholders. But this was not the case.
Apart from the project manager and the municipality, none of the partners highlighted this as the ‘experienced value’ in the project. To them, the value was mainly connected to their own business goals, testing of products, or to provide data, which could strengthen their knowledge about own products.
The most remarkable thing was, that the union (who initiated the project) expressed that their main interest of the project was to strengthen the union’s political agenda in order to create better ‘indoor climate at schools’, and thereby create better working conditions for the teachers. So yes! The value was indeed about a better indoor climate. Still, their purpose was to serve their own specific interests, which is quite the opposite of the concepts and values characterizing the co-creation paradigm in theory.
Now, despite the partners’ different views of the value, it was still possible to carry out the project. Several of the partners did, in fact, have a more varied understanding of the created value. They did point out several values, which were created in the project.
Likewise, the project manager had a very varied and exact understanding of how the project created value for every single partner. She saw it as one of her tasks to facilitate a connection between these different perspectives.
How Legitimacy arises during the Co-Creation Project
Different experiences of value creation do not have to be an obstacle to reach the finish line of the project. Yet, it does have an impact on the experience of the co-creation process.
My thesis showed, that the legitimacy of the project was closely connected to agreements and disagreements among the partners. It was expressed in the way that the partners distanced themselves if they did not agree with statements from others. The same happened if they disagreed on the methods, measurements, or with other partners’ attitude about the intent of participating in the project.
One of the partners, for instance, claimed that another partner had too much focus on his own results, and that was a ‘wrong basis’ for joining the project. Similarly, some examples show, that common understanding among the participants created legitimacy and mutual trust regarding both the different partners and regarding the project being on the right track.
It is not surprising, that a common understanding binds the partners together. Nor that disagreement causes some distance. Yet in a perspective that invites to openness towards dissimilarity, one would expect that the dialog and insights among partners would be valued explicitly.
the intention of the co-creation paradigm risk disappearing in ‘the heat of the battle’, during the working processes in the projects
It was difficult for participants, in general, to set aside their own interests to some degree. In fact, several of the partners were not even aware that the project was a co-creation project. Nor were they aware of the characteristics of this type of cooperation – even though these were made explicitly clear in the partnership agreement.
The analysis thus shows that the intention of the co-creation paradigm risk disappearing in ‘the heat of the battle’, during the working processes in the projects.
The Capacity of the Co-Creation Project
Co-creation projects are usually based outside an organizational context and are managed across organizational boundaries. The capacity in projects is not given, and it is not clearly defined, which elements are regarded as a part of the capacity.
Capacity is here defined as the non-physical organizational foundation for the project, for example, resources like participants, knowledge, competences, mandate, and partnership agreements. But like the different perspectives of value, the participants often have different views upon how the project should be organized and moved forward, and also what they themselves should bring to the table.
Several things concerning the project may remain unclear. This results in large degrees of freedom in terms of finding new solutions and working with new standards and methods. Since most of the planning is happening in the project group, this also leaves many things open for negotiation along the road. And these developments can go in different directions, some not at all expected in the planning process – for good and for bad.
when involved in a co-creation project, it entails dealing with even more uncertainties, than when projects are defined within a single organization
For example, in the school project, a new common analysis tool was created to benefit schools starting up a renovation project. The tool was to be used across professional boundaries. All partners in the project saw this as a created value, however, it was not a part of the project, to begin with.
Moreover, when involved in a co-creation project, it entails dealing with even more uncertainties, than when projects are defined within a single organization.
Also, the role of the project manager is not clear as the management mandate is being negotiated from time to time. The function of the project manager is to gather partners around a common purpose. This must be done with a thorough insight into what motivates partners to participate. The project manager must create structure, project planning, and ensure progress on the one hand. On the other hand, she must facilitate the process so it ensures group cohesion, and encourages openness and transparency. Balancing between management and facilitation is thus a delicate matter.
If the participants do not understand the paradigm and their individual cooperative responsibility in light of the group, the project has extremely difficult odds. Even the best project manager cannot on her own ensure value creation for each and every partner.
Every partner should be aware, that they play a role in order to support the dynamics in the group. Everyone contributes to legitimizing the others’ roles, professional disciplines, and the decisions in the project. They must make an effort to harvest the value creation.
Linking the Co-Creation Project to the Partners’ Organizations
One of the forces by the co-creation paradigm is – as mentioned above – that projects are often conducted in parallel to regular daily operations. Consequently, there are fewer administrative obstacles, and the frames of the project are optimized to encourage development.
At the same time, this set up involves some special requirements for the organizations involved in the project. To gain the full potential of the benefits, they must know how to incorporate the value and learnings of the project in the business afterward.
Referring once again to the school renovation example, the participants had a huge focus on the results created in the project, and on how they would use the measurements, documentation and so forth in the future. There were, however, differences in the way the organizations integrated the project in the daily business – and not least who they involved.
Within the municipality, much attention was directed towards the need for creating political and administrative support to the project. This happened through current information and status updates about the project. Alongside, a well-defined plan for user involvement in the project opened the municipality’s eyes for a new working method. The method implied involvement and thereby support from both teachers and pupils and will be integrated into future renovation projects in the municipality.
While the municipality had a main focus on stakeholder management across political and administrative boundaries, the other partners did not have the same focus or need to think across internal boundaries.
Instead, they were linking value creation to the concrete yield, which was the reason for the company’s participation in the project to begin with – for example testing a product, get insight into the end-user’s opinions, gathering data for a research article and more.
The different ways of integrating knowledge from the project give an idea of the participants’ ability to think across boundaries, and about their mindsets about viewing value from other participant’s perspectives.
the better you integrate the project in your organization, the more value you can harvest
Thus, a clear conclusion of the analysis is that the better you integrate the project in your organization, the more value you can harvest.
Stories Increase the Co-Creation Project’s Value Creation
Communication is an effective way to increase the value of co-creation projects. Stories contribute to profiling a project for the benefit of politicians and participating organizations in a project. Stories also ensure legitimacy and support of the project. However, if the experienced values are too different among the participants, a hurdle can arise, because: what is the key message in the storyline?
The researcher might see an exciting research result; the providers get some interesting knowledge, which can benefit the marketing, while the municipality and the union see the good story about the better indoor climate, and happier teachers and students.
Consequently, there is a need for a good communication strategy, which has a superior common storyline, but also one that makes room for many different sub-stories. Additionally, it must be clear, who is conducting the communication tasks. It is not given that project participants also have competencies to sufficiently communicate about the project. Therefore, it is to be recommended that participants collaborate with communications colleagues within their specific organizations.
Co-Creation Projects are like Bumblebees
Co-creation projects are about common value creation. The premise is that curiosity, openness, dissimilarity, and transparency strengthen the development of good solutions. However, there are some indications that project participants did not always have this paradigm awareness.
Keep in mind that participants do not by nature have insights into each other’s understanding of values and value creation. And yet, projects may reach their target and value is created. Furthermore, common stories about cooperation and end-users’ value are told. In this way co-creation is like a bumblebee: its wings are too small to keep it flying, but nevertheless: it flies!
And why is that possible?
The starting point is a common interest or desire for value creation, which gather the partners. By the same token, projects must have the right capacity with a proper organization, the right people, and professional competencies. A competent project manager is important as are clear definitions of roles, responsibilities, and deliveries. Legitimacy and support inside and outside the project are needed throughout the process. Finally, the storyline is key to sharing the results and solutions – and not the least – the value creation of the co-creation project.
the storyline is key to sharing the results and solutions – and not the least – the value creation of the co-creation project
Questions you should ask yourself before joining a partnership:
- What are you and your organization’s interest in participating in the project?
- How is this interest linked to the societal purpose, which the partners must create together?
- What do other partners wish to gain from cooperation?
- Are you ready to put the common interest above your own interest if necessary?
- What is your particular role and delivery in the project, and how do you contribute to a good process?
- Is your organization prepared to take part in a co-creation project – do you know the premise for the cooperation and do you know how to harvest the value?
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