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Ask any business today if it's adopted an ecosystem business model, and you'll likely get a range of responses—from "what is it?" to "sounds like a marketing fad" to "yes, we have one, but we could be getting more out of it."

Business ecosystems are made up of partners, customers, influencers, academics, NGOs, associations, and other interested parties that come together to collaborate and deliver best-in-class products and services, collectively advance their industries, and gain competitive advantage.

In some instances, this approach creates seemingly unlikely partnerships, often between perceived competitors, that turn out to be beneficial to both companies, their customers, and the industry at large.

Consider the Apple/IBM partnership. Historically viewed as competitors, both companies have developed their mobile and enterprise technologies to the point where a partnership was a natural and complementary extension of their businesses. IBM has a strong foothold in the enterprise computing market, whereas Apple has a ubiquitous presence in the consumer market. Together, IBM and Apple can pursue greater opportunities while getting a leg up on their competition.

At first glance, this partnership involves Apple and IBM. Behind the scenes, however, it also touches a variety of other organizations, such as software developers, consultants, and the core industries the mobile business apps are designed to reach, including retail, healthcare, banking, travel and transportation.

But what if your business isn't a household name? Or there's hesitation in the C-suite to let "outsiders" in?

First, ecosystems are not reserved solely for global, blue chip companies; smaller organizations have a distinct advantage in building and deriving value from their ecosystems, simply because they are more nimble. Second, although the hesitation to open up your business processes is certainly a valid concern, it limits your company's ability to evolve, grow, and seize more opportunities; instead, form an ecosystem with boundaries.

Here's how marketers can power a thriving, sustainable business ecosystem.

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image of Jane Hiscock

Jane Hiscock is president and founder of Farland Group, a marketing consulting company that specializes in convening corporations and their most important stakeholders to transform their customer engagement strategies.

LinkedIn: Jane Hiscock