They compete in the marketplace, but now they’re also collaborating.
BMW and Toyota have announced they will collaborate in two areas: the companies will share costs and knowledge for electric car battery research, and BMW will supply diesel engines to Toyota. Toyota owns the luxury brand, Lexus, and therefore BMW and Toyota directly compete in the luxury car segment. Both companies have a significant collaboration track record.
In The Culture of Collaboration book, I describe how BMW and Toyota create value by collaborating internally and with business partners. The preface, which you can read here, reveals how my visit to the BMW design center in Munich some years ago sparked the book.
So why would two competitors collaborate? Collaborating makes sense within enterprises and with partners, but the marketplace requires pure competition. Right? Well, that depends.
Collaborating among competitors makes sense when the collaboration:
- Creates value for both parties
- Begins with structure and clarity
- Involves non-differentiating processes
Clearly, the BMW/Toyota collaboration nails number one. “We think that this collaboration will allow for development of next-generation batteries to be done faster and to a higher level,” Toyota Executive Vice President Takeshi Uchiyamada said at a news conference. Both companies will share the costs of battery development.
Toyota will reportedly use BMW’s 1.6 and 2-liter diesel engines for cars sold in Europe beginning in 2014. This is reportedly the first time Toyota has procured an engine from a competitor. According to a story by Yoshio Takahashi and Kenneth Maxwell in the December 2, 2011 edition of the Wall Street Journal, the collaboration will reduce BMW’s engine production costs per unit by increasing volume. So, value creation is at the heart of this collaboration.
What about #2, structure and clarity? Based on what I know of BMW and Toyota and their approaches to collaboration, chances are this effort involves much of both. In any collaboration among competitors, both parties must establish boundaries for collaboration at the outset. Most importantly, the competing collaborators must determine use and ownership of existing and jointly-created intellectual property. Far fewer problems arise when business unit people, engineers, marketing folks, lawyers and others from both companies hash out these concerns rather than simply handing off the issues to lawyers to hash out in a vacuum.
Regarding #3, I’ve found that collaboration among competitors works best when the effort involves eliminating redundancy in non-differentiating processes. These are typically under-the-hood processes that are not part of a company’s market or product perception. Two companies that each make hot sauce might use the same bottling equipment. Two newspapers in the same market might use the same printing presses. Entire industries participate in consortiums for purchasing, saving each competing company substantial money. These shared, non-differentiating processes are invisible to the customer.
Engines are invisible to all but the most die-hard car enthusiasts, so collaborating on this process arguably fits the bill as non-differentiating. Typically, car batteries have nothing to do with the vehicle perception in the marketplace. In the case of electric cars, though, the jury is still out whether the battery is invisible to the consumer. The technology is in its infancy, and therefore the market consists primarily of early adopters. These consumers are more techno-savvy, realize the lithium-ion battery is intrinsic to the product’s technology and performance, and therefore may place a heavier emphasis on the battery in their purchase decisions.
So, it remains to be seen whether battery research and development is non-differentiating for BMW and Toyota. Nevertheless, if both companies can save substantial money on development and bring vehicles to market sooner and customers perceive and actually get better electric vehicles, this collaboration will prove successful.