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Working Successfully in Innovation Partnerships and Networks

The Steinbeis Consulting Center Co-Innovation Academy provides training in “co-innovation skills”

Innovation levels, market introductions, project standards, and the quality of collaboration are key success factors for innovation partnerships. To safeguard these factors, the Steinbeis Consulting Center Co-Innovation Academy and Steinbeis+Akademie have started providing support to innovation, collaboration, and network managers by offering a course called Co-Innovation Skills – Innovation, Design Thinking, Alliances & Networks. The training program addresses the specific challenges of partnerships and networks, such as hybrid project management – i.e. a combination of classic and agile methods – and interdisciplinary collaboration between companies and universities. Nicola Westermann, a Steinbeis entrepreneur and lecturer in collaboration and networking skills, joined innovation expert Yasmin Kardi in a discussion with digitalization and innovation consultant Marcus Netzel on the skills now required to work in innovation partnerships and networks.

Nicola Westermann: The Steinbeis Consulting Center Co-Innovation Academy helps companies develop the skills they need to plan and organize innovation partnerships and networks, such as the ZIM, the Central Innovation Program for SMEs. Perhaps we could start by defining what success actually means.

Marcus Netzel: If it’s about success with collaborative projects, that’s achieving the goal itself. If you’re planning to solve a technical issue and you succeed, that goal has been achieved. A new product is born, one that could substitute an old one, or maybe consumes less, or achieves something new. If you ask what makes networks a success, it’s a different story because you don’t have conventional product development in R&D, but an entity involving collaboration between several companies and research institutions. So, for example, networks are a success when they’re still around after the funding period, because the partners have recognized that working together makes sense, even if they might be direct competitors in some areas.

Yasmin Kardi: What are the challenges of such partnerships and networks?

Netzel: I make a distinction between the challenges of partnerships and the challenges of networks. Take a partnership between a medium-sized company and a research institution, for example. The company will be interested in making money relatively quickly with the new product. So that means the goal is about time to market – being ready to launch quickly. That compares to research institutions, which have a tendency to over-engineer things. They want to check the boxes next to as many possibilities as possible, which at the beginning might be less relevant for the medium-sized company. So the research institution will suggest that everyone takes things nice and slow, and they develop over a longer timeframe. You already have a number of areas of friction when it comes to speed. The challenge you have with a network is actually forming the network in the first place. At ZIM we call something a network when it has six or more companies, and when there are that many stakeholders involved, they may focus on different things. So it’s important to have neutral network management to pull together the different network partners.

Westermann: Collaborations have a general reputation for tending to go wrong or not leading to the desired success, even if ZIM projects often perform much better. How do you plan collaboration during the different phases of innovation, and what demands does this place on the network manager?

Netzel: One thing network managers try to do is get the network set up and ensure it’s dedicated to a certain topic. There are two phases we go through: a set-up phase and an implementation phase. During the set-up phase, the network manager brings the partners together and they then have to agree to work together. That means network managers need good contacts themselves to know the right people. They must be neutral and need management experience. If there’s friction, they must be able to cope with it and control it by putting the network partners back on track. Everyone comes to the table with different know-how or sees things differently, for example due to their sector of industry. And things have to go at the right pace. On top of that, there’s the admin side when individual partners within the network embark on collaborative projects. The fact that, in turn, these are supported by funding program A, B, or C is an administrative duty for the network manager. Their job is to keep the network running so it makes sense at all stages of the technology roadmap, en route to the goal.

Kardi: One could easily think that managers are key figures in a control center, so the success of partnerships stands or falls by them. But of course in fact companies also contribute their expertise here. So what about the collaboration skills of the network partners? Is anything done to gauge the quality of partnerships? How do you identify problems, or look for causes, or facilitate solutions?

Netzel: Most network partners comprise SMEs that have to be brought together for the first time – in any network. Some are experienced in working together while others might have been on their own so far, so the level of competence when it comes to collaboration will also be quite different. Developing interdisciplinary skills among the network partners is a task that falls into the area of training, not a funding program, or the Ministry of Economic Affairs. The problems that surface range from the different pace of doing things to different opinions. So if there’s a bit of a commotion within the network, that also has to be straightened out. Again, this is the task of network managers, but they’re not completely on their own; they can also turn to support from the project sponsor behind the funding. Also, there are network meetings to systematically go through progress on the overall project, so at those meetings problems are also raised and moderated.

Westermann: The new course offered by the Steinbeis Consulting Center Co-Innovation Academy on co-innovation skills will help companies plan and organize successful innovation partnerships and networks. Given the current challenges, in what areas are demands the strongest when it comes to skills development?

Netzel: I think it’s important that network managers and partners are equipped with methodical skills. And that the business community in general is continually sensitized to new methods and approaches. One or two medium-sized firms have probably realized that iterative processes make sense – that you can quickly make an initial prototype with just a single feature. And if that goes down well with the customer you can add more features later down the line; you don’t have to have the first 25 features planned in from the beginning. But you shouldn’t neglect policymakers either, so you have to make it clear to them there that these competencies are important. You can’t go around discounting iterative options or processes just because you have a live application or planning process running – which is actually already set in stone, so it has to be implemented using classic project management. This limits the freedoms you need as a company or research institution. What’s more important is that you focus on the outcome rather than define how to get there. So it’s crucial that companies are just as aware as research institutions that things can move at different speeds and that there are such things as new methods. On the other hand, the policymakers providing the funding also need to be aware that in the meantime there are new methods and they can be expedient. The Regulatory Control Council has specifically pointed out that there’s surely still potential for us to optimize this situation in Germany – so that the actual funding systems really do provide support and aid people.

For further information on the course on Co-Innovation Skills, go to http://steinbeis-coin.de/co-innovation-skills.


Nicola Westermann (author)
Steinbeis Entrepreneur
Steinbeis Consulting Center Co-Innovation Academy (Herrenberg)

Yasmin Kardi (author)
Lecturer in innovation management
Steinbeis Consulting Center Co-Innovation Academy (Herrenberg)

Senior Strategist for Digitalization & Ecosystem
Siemens Mobility GmbH (München)

Marcus Netzel (interviewee)
Advisory Board
Steinbeis Consulting Center Co-Innovation Academy (Herrenberg)

Digitalization & Innovation Consultant
Netzel Law Office