Thursday, June 19, 2014

The new normal in business: Going from product to platforms and processes

Platforms and processes, rather than products, will become the focus of new business creation as we move forward. The main characteristic of a handful of new trends in business – Collaborative consumption, Sharing, the Maker movement and the Circular economy – is that the value creation is less about adding some new feature to a product. Instead, the appeal of these models is that they can deliver more value for less by involving a number of stakeholders, including the users, in co-creating solutions. What’s innovative, and what distinguishes successful companies in this type of economy, is their ability to create well-working platforms that enable a wide set of actors to participate.

Conventional hotel chains like Hilton or Intercontinental have built their business over decades by owning and operating hotels. Now, in just a few years, Airbnb has created a service that rivals them in size, by coordinating that a great number of private persons can rent out rooms to others. Likewise, the large media companies used to be broadcasters that would send the same ready-made content to millions of viewers. Now, 7 of the top ten global websites are services based on content created by the users. Sites like Facebook, Wikipedia and Twitter do not produce content, they operate platforms that make it easy for millions of users to exchange the information they need.

Even producers of physical devices need to start focusing on platforms and processes, because increasingly, this is where they can create value for their users. Take as an example a manufacturer of Digital SLR cameras. SLR cameras have fallen drastically in price in recent years, while at the same time, the quality and features offered by companies have become very similar. Technically, the difference between Canon, Nike, Olympus or Sony is hard to tell.  In short, cameras have become commodities, mainly competing on price – which is not a very attractive game for a manufacturer to play. New features or marginal technical improvements in image quality are getting harder and more expensive to develop – even if they hardly can fetch a higher price.

The superstructure
Instead a company can try to improve the user’s experience by building services and processes, for instance by creating sites that teach users to take better pictures, galleries and competitions that allow users to show off their photos and be inspired by others, forums where users can help each other with tips and tricks, or platforms that allow users to share equipment or collaborate on projects.
One could think of these processes as a virtual ”superstructure”, which runs on top of the physical product. For companies, it is typically a less expensive way to improve the value of its solution to users, and often it creates a more engaged and loyal relationship to customers.

The same approach can be used for almost any object or device – whether it’s pharmaceuticals, sporting goods or DIY tools. It’s likely that for many devices there will be no point in trying to distinguish between the physical product and its virtual superstructure – they become an integrated solution. Already products like smart phones make no sense without all the apps and services that run on it. The same will be true for 3D printers, cars, thermostats, running shoes…
In some cases, creating a popular superstructure, can allow a company to change its status from being one among a number of other providers of equipment to becoming an integrator, operating a platform, where many others companies and their customers also go to create solutions. Once again, Apple’s app-store is an obvious example.

Designing tools for participation
From a design perspective, this means that focus moves from designing finished products, to designing tools that allow customers to participate and contribute to creating a solution, which fits exactly to the individual users’ context.
This is already evident in the many websites that enable users to customize the products they order. Cars, furniture, glasses and shoes have been modularized, so customers can pick and choose the combinations of features, colors and materials they prefer. This makes the product much more valuable to the customer, indicating that making the interfaces for participation effective and easy to use is an important part of the overall design of what the company offers.
Such mass customization is at one end of the spectrum of involving users in value creation. At the other end are much more open-ended systems for 3D printing, which allow users to download CAD drawings and remix and redraw objects completely before printing them out.
It seems likely that users will increasingly expect and demand the option of co-creating ever more details of the objects they use – at least those objects that they are most engaged in or dependent on.

User-driven innovation is another example of the power of creating platforms and services rather than just physical objects. The toymaker LEGO very deliberately works to engage its users in co-creating new products – and in the process, the platforms for involving users have become extensions of the LEGO experience. LEGO Cusoo is an example; it’s a website, where users can show off their constructions, and where they can vote for the constructions that they would like to see as official LEGO sets. If a design gets more than 10.000 supports, LEGO will start the process of developing it into an official product, and if it makes it to the market, the designer will receive a percentage of the revenues.

Traditional roles are blurring
One way of describing the shift in approach is that companies, which have been providing solutions to you and for you, will move to solutions created with you and by you. This goes for customized physical products as well as services like healthcare, education, banking or travelling.

Although it’s not as if customers are taking over completely and starting to build everything themselves, it’s clearly very different than the strict division of roles and responsibilities between providers and users, that were the norm in the traditional industrial society. Those old lines are blurring, as consumers become participants and co-creators.

This in turn has implications for styles of management. The company loses control of the process and the outcome, when solutions emerge in the interaction among a number of different stakeholders on a platform
Managers cannot hand out top-down commands, because the contributors to a project may be from different organizations – or they can be customers or volunteers. The company can influence, but not control, and leadership becomes a matter of motivating others by the strength of your vision.

The shift of roles can be challenging, because it requires a rethinking of how you see yourself contributing value – whether as a company or as a person. In the co-creation paradigm, being an expert is not about knowing all the facts or being able to come up with solutions yourself. Rather, expertise can be in enabling the solution to emerge, by bringing together the right people and resources. Thus , the teacher is not just an expert in the subject, but rather in making learning happen. The doctor is not just an expert in disease, but in supporting health.
Procter and Gamble famously changed the approach of their huge internal product-development labs from “research and develop”, to “connect and develop”.

It’s not just about money
Interestingly, the collaborative economy is not just about money. For the company that operates the platform or sells products that work with it, money may be what drives the business. But for other stakeholders, there can be other motivations for participating than money. Users and volunteers can contribute to get recognition and status, to help each other, because they find it interesting – or because they enjoy the social interaction. It’s an important point that these values can be as important as money in making the interaction work productively.

From ME to WE-thinking
The most challenging part of moving to platforms for co-creation may be the deeper change in mindset that it requires: From a ME to a WE perspective.
Generally, the past decades have been an era of ME thinking. There has been an emphasis on individual freedom and achievement. Winning the competition against everyone else was seen as the way to grow.
The Me-thinking appears increasingly problematic and un-suited for a world that is becoming intensely connected and interdependent.
Instead it has getting easier and more efficient to develop and seek solutions by working with others, and in the process accepting that one’s own success depends on the success of everyone else in the system. WE-thinking is about realizing that our fate is shared.

WE-thinking requires trust. To cooperate and share we need transparency, we need better tools for assessing risk, we need to be able to retaliate if others cheat or free-ride, we need new ways of sharing ownership and benefits. For the WE-economy to become the new normal it needs to be operational for regular, established companies. Businesses may see the potential in opening up, but they will be very reluctant to do so unless there are tools in place, that make sharing and collaborating more predictable and reliable.

Obviously, all of this is not an absolute shift. We will still be competing, we will still be thinking about our own interests, we will still want to be able to control and own. But the opportunities in thinking more in terms of WE are growing as technology connects us, and as the increasing pressure from a growing population on a finite planet makes it clear that ME-thinking will only exhaust the available resources for all of us.

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