Thursday, November 03, 2011

Ecosystem & Porter

A common characteristic of Next generation organisations (as opposed to traditional) is their focus on ecosystems and the provision of platforms to support their growth. The purpose of such ecosystems is not simply some form of marketing exercise but instead a mechanism for managing the innovation paradox (i.e. the need to be efficient to compete today but also to be creative in order to compete tomorrow).

Consider the provision through an online API of a software system whether it’s SalesForce, Amazon’s AWS or PayPal’s x.commerce platform. These services are core utilities that the organisation is providing with the express aim of others consuming i.e. an ecosystem of consumers developing around the service.

The consumption of the service may represent general use or even novel and more creative uses e.g. the early provision of big data Hadoop systems on AWS. Since the genesis of any activity is uncertain (being chaotic) and likely to fail, then the use of utility services helps reduce the cost of failure and thereby encourages the creative pursuits of others. The larger the ecosystem, the more likely that creative models of consumption and the genesis of new activity will be occurring.

Naturally, if those activities are useful (i.e. Hadoop on AWS) they will spread through the normal process of diffusion. By monitoring the ecosystem’s use of your services this spread can be detected.
These factors enable a model known as ILC (innovate-leverage-commoditise) to be used (see figure below). Through provision of utility services and the development of an ecosystem, you enable others to create new activities at a lower cost of failure and hence encourage innovation to occur in the ecosystem and around your services. Through monitoring, you can leverage the ecosystem to identify novel activities that are spreading. An organisation then can either copy or acquire such activities and commoditise these to create further services that enable growth of the ecosystem and hence further innovation through componentisation effects.

For example, the introduction of AWS enabled others to build Hadoop on AWS. With the spread of Hadoop on AWS, Amazon introduced an equivalent utility service - Elastic Map Reduce (EMR) - which in turn has enabled novel activities to appear that consume EMR. And so the cycle repeats ...

Figure 1 - ILC model (click on image for higher resolution)

NB, I italicise the term innovation because I'm referring to the creation of novel activities i.e. genesis of an activity rather than the broad use of the word innovation which is applied to almost everything from feature differentiation to service provision of a pre-existing activity. See "The Abuse of Innovation"

It’s through models such as ILC that an organisation can simultaneously appear to be :-
  • highly creative - by pushing such uncertain activities to a wider ecosystem
  • customer focused - by leveraging the ecosystem to identify that which is becoming adopted
  • highly efficient - by focusing on commoditisation
In Porter’s terms these Next generation organisations have a primary focus on a cost leadership (a best price) for provision of the utility service.

BUT they also have a strong differentiation strategy which is heavily influenced through creative pursuits of others within the ecosystem that develops around their utility service (i.e. genesis of novel activities being driven outside the organisation). This is why Next generation organisations often cite “enabling others to build upon our services” as criticial.

BUT they also have a strong customer focus strategy heavy influenced by adoption within the ecosystem (i.e. they leverage the ecosystem to identify activities that are spreading) and subsequent provision of these activities as further utility services.

In such cases, all three of Porter's strategies are being pursued simultaneously with the major nuance between these players is whether they use copying (a weak ecosystem play) or acquisition (a strong, reinforcing ecosystem play).

I mention this because "focus on customer, innovation or efficiency" is one of those truisms like "culture eats strategy for breakfast". It's a great sound bite but on closer examination, it doesn't seem to stand up to rigorous scrutiny today. The game has changed.

I'm currently collecting a selection of truisms and each one of them seems to leak like a sieve when exposed to rigorous study. The following are ones which in my view are all in need of serious re-evaluation :-
  • You can't manage what you can’t measure
  • You need to give customers what they want
  • The best way to predict the future is to create it
  • Avoid the commoditisation trap
  • Business has only two functions - marketing and innovation
  • Culture eats strategy for breakfast
  • Focus on customer, innovation or efficiency


Paul said...

Outstandingly simple description of something very complex. Excellent Simon.
In your research, have you identified and ebb and flow between the ILC - ie is one dominant, or are the all concurrent? If they are concurrent how is this achieved?

swardley said...


Thanks for the comment, all three are concurrent but there does appear to be some differences in the relative importance of each which varies with the economic cycle.

Unfortunately this will take many decades to confirm as industries evolve on that timescale. Suffice to say, at this moment in time the use of ILC is a mechanism by which a company can achieve linearity for innovation, efficiency and customer focus vs ecosystem size.

Of course, a company can also become super linear for size of ecosystem vs company size.

Which leads to the possibility of companies that become increasingly innovative, efficient and customer focus as they grow in size in a way that has never been seen before.

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