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FEATURE10 September 2009

Is co-creation over-hyped?

Features

Co-creation promises to break down the barriers between researchers, consumers and marketers. But how much substance is there behind all the hype? Sheila Keegan of Campbell Keegan and Jeremy Brown of Sense take sides in the debate.

Sheila Keegan counts herself as an advocate of co-creation. But she kicked off a debate at this year’s Research conference when she voiced her irritation at the “faddish and ubiquitous use of the term” and questioned whether the excitement surrounding it is justified. Meanwhile Jeremy Brown of Sense Worldwide has been making his living from co-creation for the past decade, and welcomes the attention it is currently receiving.

We asked the two of them to debate whether co-creation is over-hyped.

YES

Sheila Keegan
Co-founder
Campbell Keegan

 
Co-creation is the new kid on the block – and it has polarised the research industry. Some advocates see it as revolutionising the way we work and dismiss ‘traditional’ research as ineffectual or irrelevant. Critics, meanwhile, claim that co-creation methods can lack research rigour – that they are superficial or poorly structured.

I am a strong advocate of co-creation, but it is not a panacea. I am wary of the hype that risks turning it into hollow marketing jargon, ill-defined and devoid of meaning.

Nonetheless, it is clear that co-creation is important – it is simply how we function as human beings. But at present it lacks a common language and theoretical framework. There is a wealth of applications, but a lack of conceptual clarity. As an industry we need to explore what we mean by co-creation – how it can be understood culturally and socially, and in relation to new scientific thinking. In particular we need to be clearer about how we can maximise its potential and how it can creatively contribute to our strategic thinking.

What do we mean by co-creation? There are at least two (sometimes overlapping) interpretations:

  • a cluster of methodologies (often web-based) which involve all or most stakeholders in the co-creation of value, meaning or ideas
  • a perspective on the world which views all exploratory or developmental research, by definition, as co-creation. Sociologist Judi Marshall calls this “living life as inquiry”

Methods such as creative workshops, breakthrough events and creative panels have been around for decades, and there is a wealth of guidance on how best to structure and foster creativity in work groups. It is with the development of web-based methodologies that a gulf has opened between exponents of ‘traditional’ vs ‘co-creation’ methodologies.

It is often claimed that online communities can co-create in ways that are qualitatively different from traditional approaches. Certainly technology facilitates exciting opportunities for sharing and developing ideas and connectivity, which can amplify the scope of co-creation. But it is easy to confuse the methodology with the learning and forget that the underlying principles of research still apply. In my view, attention to research structure, analysis and interpretation is needed, whatever the methodology.

Squabbling about the ‘best’ methodology is a waste of time. All research approaches are routes to creating understanding, generating good ideas and formulating appropriate strategies. Different methodologies deliver different perspectives on research issues. We need to choose the ones that are most likely to deliver understanding, regardless of whether these are old, new or recycled. Forecaster Bob Johansen has described this rather nicely as being “methodologically agnostic”.

Ultimately what we sell is good thinking. With our clients (and stakeholders) we create shared understanding, creative direction, the ability to recognise and make sense of ‘data’, to weave plausible and useful stories, to clarify and steer thinking in productive directions. The methodology is a support, not an end point.  

But as well as being a research methodology, co-creation is intrinsic to everyday human interaction. In normal conversation, each utterance or gesture that an individual makes calls forth a particular response from the ‘other’ who, in responding, elicits a further response from the first speaker. Moment by moment, these responses steer the conversation. In this way, most conversations are, in large part, improvisational and co-created.

The same processes occur in a research context. Creating understanding, ideas and knowledge is a moment-by-moment, iterative process involving all of the participants. These are not new thoughts – GH Mead developed his theory of symbolic interactionism in the 1930s. The point I am making is that all good research, by its nature, is improvisational and creative. We need to focus on living life as inquiry and not just concentrate on methodology.

Developing this mindset among researchers, clients and participants fosters a collaborative way of working that is essential for consumer-centred innovation. An example is the development of flat beds by British Airways in the 1990s, cited by Langmaid and Andrews in their book The Breakthrough Zone as a co-created success.

‘Research as co-creation’ requires a new model, in which learning is developed, evaluated and steered moment by moment. We need to continually listen, observe, reflect, evaluate and make judgements all at the same time, shaping and being shaped by others. 

Good research has always demanded a range of skills: thinking from different perspectives, examining our own emotional, intuitive and conditioned responses and those of others. Co-creation is not the holy grail. As a methodology it has strengths and weaknesses, and we need to fully understand and foster the conditions under which it flourishes. ‘Living life as inquiry’ demands a different mindset, which is both improvisational and rigorous.

If we treat co-creation simply as a fashion we risk trivialising and undermining its development in both these areas.

Photo of Jeremy Brown

NO

Jeremy Brown
CEO
Sense Worldwide


Co-creation is certainly being hyped at the moment, but in our opinion deservedly so.

At heart, co-creation describes the exciting new ways that social and technological change enables individuals, groups and organisations to connect, collaborate, solve problems and create new value together. It is set to be the key driver of innovation and growth in the early 21st century – the next step in the way business develops and markets new goods, and a major change in the way we as citizens engage with public services and participate in the political process.

While the significance and impact of co-creation stretch far beyond research, its importance to the discipline cannot be overstated. Many of the key skills and processes involved in co-creation have their origins in research, and many of its key practitioners come from a research background. This gives the industry the opportunity to be at the fulcrum of future business and social change, enabling organisations to better engage with and learn from their customers. This is leading to a potential redefinition of research and expansion of its role.

The importance of co-creation has its roots in the fact that top-down systems, whether multinational corporations or governments, have reached a point where they cannot deliver the required value on their own. A fast-moving marketplace means the bar for success is set higher as consumers become more demanding, and the current downturn is squeezing organisations to do more for less.

As a result organisations are opening up and reaching outside themselves for innovation, whether groups of experts to help solve existing problems, or with consumers themselves to help better fit products and services to their individual needs. In some instances these networks are coming together of their own accord and creating solutions that rival anything offered by ‘proper’ companies.

Many people see co-creation’s plethora of definitions and approaches as a weakness, implying faddishness and a lack of rigour. But this fluidity is in fact part of its strength. Co-creation is an emergent, bottom-up activity that has spread organically via virtual and physical networks. It is defined by its practitioners as they explore its potential and evolve its processes. In a networked digital society, knowledge is negotiated in this way rather than being processed and handed down. The robustness of these emergent ideas is determined by their longevity and success rather than by a single source of authority.

This does not mean that top-down organisations or systems of knowledge are redundant. They are the foundation on which co-creation occurs – providing the efficiencies of scale and expertise required to turn co-created ideas into reality. Similarly, the use of co-creation doesn’t mean throwing out traditional research methods. They are the building blocks from which new, more open, flexible and creative methodologies can be built which ensure that insight and real consumer involvement are a continual and iterative part of the business development process.

Co-creation isn’t an easy option. It requires strong, considered leadership and an understanding of when an organisation’s processes can be open to new ideas and influences and when to hunker down and make internally and individually driven decisions. The key often lies in the preparation, carefully constructing the right conditions at each stage for different groups to come together and collaborate meaningfully. At Sense we find that this involves:

  • asking the right questions– stimulating participants’ curiosity and imagination through exercises that channel their creativity,
  • of the right people – selecting a group with a range of levels of familiarity with the business challenge, to both fuel and temper thinking,
  • in the right way – creating an emphatic connection with participants, and ensuring they feel they are making a difference.

Nor is co-creation the answer to everything. I wouldn’t want a major surgical operation to be co-created, but I might want the organisation to take a co-creative approach to deliver a more responsive and relevant service experience. Co-creation helps to construct the right briefs that pinpoint the key issues to be tackled. Its outputs are often a further set of questions – ‘how might we do X?’ for example – that frame an opportunity and set the business challenge that needs to be addressed if real innovation is to occur.

The hype about co-creation is justified and useful if it brings people’s attention to the practice. We’ve been co-creating with our own network of ‘expert creatives’ for ten years now, and from our wealth of experience we have developed guidelines and frameworks that have survived the true test of worth – our clients. They recognise that co-creation produces real value.

Sheila Keegan’s book Qualitative Research is due to be published in October by Kogan Page. Sense’s white paper The Spirit of Co-Creation can be downloaded here.

11 Comments

8 years ago

Sheila and Jeremy, Thank you for your thoughts and I can agree that the fundamentals of co-creation were always presence in our society and that is kind of natural process that was substituted by process optimization. In my opinion why can see the burst in co-creation, often used badly, as we innovate back to the essential elements of human behavior, were the emotional and system aspects gain weight. Also agreeing with you guys, I would love to hear some thoughts about Experience Co-Creation. We talk a lot about Co-Creation but the emotional element is still eliminated, does it though sell not easily? Thanks you and keep going Daniel Experience Designer and Innovation Activist

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8 years ago

Hi Daniel Good to hear your thoughts. In my view co-creation always involves emotion, feelings, our senses, intuition, hypothesising etc - because we interact as whole people, not just with our 'heads'. However, I do think that we have to reflect on our reactions - and how we interact with others -and try to understand why we are reacting as we do - this to me is the difference between research and raw experience.

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8 years ago

As a relative newcomer to the industry, I am developing a view that certain terms/techniques are being developed for the sake of "ownership" and yet nothing is reallly new and revolutionary about the approach. Forgive me for being "blunt" but the bottom line of any research agency is to help support a client achieve business impact through greater customer understanding - leading to greater retention, superior customer satisfaction, better products and thus leading to growth/competitive advantage and eventually "more profitable brands". Surely a good research agency fuses together (issue or sector expertise, consumer understanding and collaboration to achieve this (using technology and common sense) to achieve ROI for clients?

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8 years ago

I think both of you are right. As a practicioner, I am frequently embarrassed to see how online-ish agencies (mis)appriopriate the idea of co-creation. In their urge to share in the spoils, all too familiar techniques are rebranded as 'co-creation'. By doing this, we undermine its potential to extract value from the constant flow of interactions within a community. In my view, co-creation will become a permanent fixture in an increasingly collaborative world.

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8 years ago

I think both of you are right. As a practicioner, I am frequently embarrassed to see how online-ish agencies (mis)appriopriate the idea of co-creation. In their urge to share in the spoils, all too familiar techniques are rebranded as 'co-creation'. By doing this, we undermine its potential to extract value from the constant flow of interactions within a community. In my view, co-creation will become a permanent fixture in an increasingly collaborative world.

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8 years ago

Hi Raul, Thanks for your comment; unfortunately it is because co-creation is so big and far reaching that some agencies are paying the type of lip-service you describe, muddying the waters and devaluing the term as a result. We need to be aware of this but make sure it doesn't become the main issue surrounding co-creation within the research world - as you say it is is far too important and fundamental an activity for us to spend all our time fiddling at edges of its definition while the world around embraces it principles. Jeremy

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8 years ago

There is a backlash against co-creation from some parts of the industry because it requires researchers to take a different role. Co-creation means taking a step back ourselves and acting more as facilitators and enablers of direct contact between brands and consumers. We need to be provokers of debate, conduits for information, encouraging consumers and brands to think for themselves and to think and act together. This does not mean that the day of the debrief is dead, or that there is no place for insightful, objective, inspirational guidance from researchers. Instead it means that we need to see ourselves more as part of a triangular relationship between brands, people and researchers rather than a linear one where we stand between clients and consumers. Of course, this all requires time and space to allow people to talk to each other and for brands to get involved in the conversation. We need time to build trust between people, and we need time to respond to and build on what people are saying. Crucially we need to accept that if consumers are going to become more equal partners in our approach to generating insight and innovation we need to build more continuous relation- ships with the people we are working with. This might mean spending two days working with consumers face to face or it can mean spending months or years working with particular communities of people. This is not about gathering a snapshot of opinion in a focus group or a hurriedly captured set of answers through a survey (as valuable as those methods remain), this is about working with people who are giving you the best of themselves, who move along the learning curve with you, who come to establish a relationship based on trust. all of these things require time. Probably the most significant principle that underpins our view of new ways of working with consumers is that interaction between people – whether consumers or brand owners – is absolutely vital. Fostering and participating in conversations between people is fundamental to the idea of co-creating insights and innovation. This is important in a number of different ways. firstly it mirrors the way that we generally live as human beings – we are, after all, social animals. secondly, it reflects the way we increasingly consume media and make decisions about what we buy, read, watch, and do. Thirdly it allows for a different kind of research landscape, one which subverts the traditional question and answer format – a relatively unfamiliar form of human communication and interaction – and replaces it with something far more natural and intuitive. in this world consumers are encouraged to talk to each other rather than to researchers, opinions are offered, agreed with, disputed, challenged and developed. By working in a more natural communication mode we hear views expressed in real voices, and more importantly we end up discussing things and asking questions we didn’t even know existed or that we wanted to ask. This can lead to some “fortunate accidents” – insights that you have stumbled upon almost by chance. It is a reasonably good principle – though not always true – that if you know what question to ask you probably have a pretty good idea of what the answer is or might be. The mantra is simple: stop asking questions and start listening to conversations. For more information and debate on co-creation check out our blog and papers @ www.facegroup.co.uk

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8 years ago

There is a backlash against co-creation from some parts of the industry because it requires researchers to take a different role. Co-creation means taking a step back ourselves and acting more as facilitators and enablers of direct contact between brands and consumers. We need to be provokers of debate, conduits for information, encouraging consumers and brands to think for themselves and to think and act together. This does not mean that the day of the debrief is dead, or that there is no place for insightful, objective, inspirational guidance from researchers. Instead it means that we need to see ourselves more as part of a triangular relationship between brands, people and researchers rather than a linear one where we stand between clients and consumers. Of course, this all requires time and space to allow people to talk to each other and for brands to get involved in the conversation. We need time to build trust between people, and we need time to respond to and build on what people are saying. Crucially we need to accept that if consumers are going to become more equal partners in our approach to generating insight and innovation we need to build more continuous relation- ships with the people we are working with. This might mean spending two days working with consumers face to face or it can mean spending months or years working with particular communities of people. This is not about gathering a snapshot of opinion in a focus group or a hurriedly captured set of answers through a survey (as valuable as those methods remain), this is about working with people who are giving you the best of themselves, who move along the learning curve with you, who come to establish a relationship based on trust. all of these things require time. Probably the most significant principle that underpins our view of new ways of working with consumers is that interaction between people – whether consumers or brand owners – is absolutely vital. Fostering and participating in conversations between people is fundamental to the idea of co-creating insights and innovation. This is important in a number of different ways. firstly it mirrors the way that we generally live as human beings – we are, after all, social animals. secondly, it reflects the way we increasingly consume media and make decisions about what we buy, read, watch, and do. Thirdly it allows for a different kind of research landscape, one which subverts the traditional question and answer format – a relatively unfamiliar form of human communication and interaction – and replaces it with something far more natural and intuitive. in this world consumers are encouraged to talk to each other rather than to researchers, opinions are offered, agreed with, disputed, challenged and developed. By working in a more natural communication mode we hear views expressed in real voices, and more importantly we end up discussing things and asking questions we didn’t even know existed or that we wanted to ask. This can lead to some “fortunate accidents” – insights that you have stumbled upon almost by chance. It is a reasonably good principle – though not always true – that if you know what question to ask you probably have a pretty good idea of what the answer is or might be. The mantra is simple: stop asking questions and start listening to conversations. For more information and debate on co-creation check out our blog and papers @ www.facegroup.co.uk

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8 years ago

Great. I agree with almost everything you say – and very eloquently expressed, if I may say so. There are just a few areas where I disagree or want to question. Firstly, criticism of co-creation (however we define it) is healthy because it stops us becoming complacent and forces us to keep evolving our thinking. Challenging each other – and our different ways of understanding co-creation - is part of the collaborative process of its development. Secondly, I think we need to be wary of dismissing criticism of co-creation as a ‘backlash’ by researchers who do not want to change their role. This may be true in some quarters, of course. More to the point, there are critics – like myself - who think that developing thinking and practice within co-creation is vitally important. We do not want to see it trivialised. This is more fore-lash than backlash! Thirdly, there is a lot to learn from what has gone before. ‘Co-creation’ is a relatively recent term, but the thinking that underpins it has been around – and been practiced to a greater or lesser degree – for decades. We should use this knowledge. Fourthly I’m wary of an either-or mentality. Co-creation good. Traditional research bad. I think it is inaccurate to dismiss focus groups as offering a ‘snapshot of opinion’. At best they can be a genuinely co-creative environment – even if time limited. Most importantly I like the fact that we are having this debate, shaping and being shaped by the views of others. You might be interested in a couple of papers on our website www.campbellkeegan.com - given at the AQR/QRCA conferences in 2003/2005 Sheila

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8 years ago

Great to see the debate out in the open. Absolutely. I agree with Sheila that there's a lot of unhelpful 'mine is better than yours' angst circulating in the discourse around this subject. But it also stems from a sense of passion that co-creation practitioners tend to have, which is also a positive. Happy to put my hand up and admit to a bit of fervour on occasion. Sheila's also spot on to remind us about the rather longer roots of this way of thinking than many care to remember or even seem to be aware of. For my part the strength of co-creation as the current name for a way of working with people, ideas and culture is that it's been brewing for a while - since the 60s at least. Anyone who's interested should go back to some of the psychological underpinnings of this school, such as Winnicott's concept of the transitional space and indeed Roland Barthes' work on readerly (lisible) and writerly (scriptible) texts. The idea of an 'open text' strikes me as helpful on a number of levels.I think Barthes even uses the term co-creation at one point, so it wasn't invented yesterday I'm afraid. Co-creation = open conversation We've published on where the concept comes from, so have a look: www.promisecorp.com/newpathways

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