It's been a few decades since the biologic term "ecosystem" infiltrated the language of business. Ecosystems, as we know, are communities of companies and individuals that supply to, buy from, co-invent with, compete against, consult to, facilitate connections for, and generally interact with one another in ways that, ideally, advance the interests of everyone.
In a recent post for Fortune, business gurus John Hagel and John Seely Brown lauded the potential for such ecosystems to transfer learning among members and improve performance overall. Hagel and Brown point out that most business ecosystems are static: "They focus on coordinating a fixed set of resources among a limited set of participants." The coauthors suggest that companies could enliven, deepen, and eke out more value from those narrowly transactional relationships by posing challenges to their ecosystem partners.
"For example," they write, "a coffee chain might pose a challenge to its cup and paper goods suppliers to solve the problem of accidental food and beverage spills. Or the company might pose a broader challenge of eliminating packaging waste or reducing its overall carbon footprint and encourage its partners to work together on the problem. Such challenges allow members to work together and begin forming relationships with each other. The result: one or more dynamic ecosystems nested within a larger, static one."
Grand challenges, as we know, inspire teams and ignite innovation. The sequencing of the human genome and Burt Rutan's SpaceShipOne are just two products of such challenges. Although the goals within supply chains may be less lofty, they can produce quantifiable improvements in performance. And when a supplier poses a challenge to other members of a supply chain--for the benefit of their shared customer--it assumes a halo of leadership.
Of course, there's a bit of risk involved, as there is every time you co-create with others (particularly if competitors are part of your ecosystem). But at a time when large companies are increasingly squeezing their small and midsize suppliers, working on grand challenges together sounds like a great way to elevate those relationships.