Seizing our future by creating value together
What must we do as business leaders to cultivate the co-creation economy?
Here in Virginia and across the nation we are witnessing an unprecedented effort to create greater equity — in consideration, treatment, opportunity and investment — throughout our society. Media attention has focused intently on what governments are doing to evolve their policies, but businesses are rapidly transforming as well, confirming the effectiveness of existing practices or creating more equitable approaches to serving customers and collaborating with employees and other stakeholders.
We clearly are at a turning point in American history, and — make no mistake — we also are writing a vital new chapter in the advancement of human society. As business and community leaders, we are continuing to propel a centuries-old evolution that has fostered greater freedom and social equity. Despite the gaps we see today, we’ve come a long way. Think back to ancient Rome or the Middle Ages or the era of colonization: Economic structures kept power and wealth firmly in the hands of a few well-heeled families. Meanwhile, the masses toiled in fields or at other rough labors, doomed to a life of poverty. These humble folks did their jobs; no one surveyed them to gauge their satisfaction.
But then, around the time Thomas Jefferson was infusing the Declaration of Independence with revolutionary ideals such as being created equal, the Industrial Revolution was dawning overseas and eventually would boost those brave ideals. We all know that efficiency, not equity, drove the rise of the industrial economy in the United States. But as workers gained technical skills and (sometimes) union clout, employers were forced to cede some power and — surprise, surprise — realized that their companies often performed better. This power shift continued with the information economy as employers refined their workplace policies to compete for workers who had valuable, specialized knowledge and seamless career mobility.
Just when we thought things might be settling down, there’s this: the sharing economy, which is dynamically and digitally connecting people, services and assets — and completely disrupting traditional buyer-seller and employer-employee paradigms.
As business leaders, we must operate in the midst of these economic, social and technological forces while also charting a sustainable path forward. Our companies’ futures, brands and reputations are at stake, so we need to advance boldly. Yet, we worry about making costly missteps. Even if we execute a “perfect” product or service launch, unforeseen issues may arise with how we did it and who we included in the process. This is a serious quandary, but it’s one we can more readily resolve by seeing our diverse stakeholders in a different light and engaging them actively and continuously.
We’re entering an era that will blur the lines between companies, employees, business partners, customers and communities. We will bring these parties together to “co-create” outcomes to benefit a full spectrum of stakeholders while also driving growth and profitability. The value that’s created — and the goodwill generated — will fuel what I call the co-creation economy, which can move us into the future.
Co-creation was pioneered in the technology field, as developers engaged customers to get initial input for new products. At my company, we view co-creation as a continuing cycle of interaction, learning and communication — from the start of a project to the end, and beyond.
There are five sequential steps:
- Understand – Begin the process by listening to a range of stakeholders before devoting resources to developing a product or solving a problem.
- Envision – With the benefit of very early input, we can define the scope, focus and general attributes of what we are creating with greater confidence in our direction.
- Commit – This degree of confidence manifests as firmer commitments to actions and budgets, which inspires employees and generates advocacy among customers and stakeholders who get status reports about the “great new thing” they’ve helped to shape.
- Assess – Beyond mere product testing, this means asking hard questions of ourselves and our stakeholders: Have we thought of everything? Who or what are we neglecting? How might this initiative lead to unintended consequences?
- Learn – After the ribbon is cut or the product is in market, we must scrutinize our co-creation. It always can be better and, importantly, the next time around we will have leaders, employees and stakeholders who understand co-creation more fully and who can wring the maximum value from it.
This holistic form of co-creation is, by nature, a means to advance diversity, inclusion and equity. We cannot co-create effectively with the “usual suspects” in a conference room with a whiteboard and spreadsheet. And we can’t hold productive discussions — with employees, customers, community members, business partners and others — without drawing on a more diverse group of talent and hearing fresh perspectives about how to proceed in more equitable ways.
We have the chance to pioneer the co-creation economy and enjoy a full spectrum of benefits: equity, innovation, financial results and human progress. Such outcomes serve the business community well – and fulfill the vision our Founding Fathers wished for us.
Diana Mendes is corporate president, infrastructure and mobility equity, for HNTB Corp., an Arlington-based infrastructure solutions firm providing planning, design, program management and construction management services.