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Platforms – a secret tool to disruptive innovations


16 / 12 / 2014

(door Ilkka Kakko)

Have you ever thought what an ancient marketplace – like Agora has in common with Airbnb – a six-year-old company currently disrupting the global hotel industry?

To understand the similarities we have to study the background of Agora. According to Wikipedia: The Agora (Ἀγορά Agorá) was a central spot in ancient Greek city-states. The literal meaning of the word is “gathering place” or “assembly”. The agora was the center of athletic, artistic, spiritual and political life of the city. The Ancient Agora of Athens was the best-known example. The notion itself is based on the two Greek verbs ἀγοράζω, agorázō, “I shop”, andἀγορεύω, agoreúō, “I speak in public”

Indeed, they are both platforms, the hot topic of contemporary business leaders. They both enable low-entry, almost zero-friction interaction between a diversity of participants. So in fact, we all have experienced weak signals of this exciting movement every time we have visited any market square. The analogy to Agora helps us to understand a platform as an organized setting where producers and service providers meet with the customers and consumers, where their roles may swap freely according to the personal preferences. Platforms are places where ‘I shop and I speak in public’ – principle is highlighted and respected. The format and infrastructure of platforms have evolved and diversified in recent years enormously, but they still carry some of the ambience of ancient market squares.

Platforms – what are they then? How can we, as business owners, communities or private persons benefit from them? Is there any good reason why we should try to understand the mechanisms?

The first conceptual definition, which I noticed was by John Hagel, John Seely Brown and Lang Davison in their brilliant book “The Power of Pull” (2010), in which they introduced ‘pull platforms’. The authors defined the new phenomenon as following: platform is used metaphorically to describe frameworks for orchestrating a set of resources that can be configured quickly and easily to serve a broad range of needs. With a wide set of case examples they were able to explain already four years ago the vital principles of the platform economy pretty accurately. And they also predicted the vast implications, which platforms will bring to the market place.

But four years is a long time in disruptive economy and we have witnessed an enormous shift towards the platform driven business environment.

Even though platforms have been a natural place for interaction since ancient times they have just recently become a hot topic, because the vivid discussion around the most prominent business cases has taken the notions ‘platform’ and ‘platform economy’ to the limelight. Platforms are here to stay and surely also to flourish; new implementations of platforms with revolutionary characteristics are in the pipeline – or should we say emerging from these already existing platforms.

Disruptive business models are gaining momentum and changing rapidly the fundamentals in the global business. The triumphant business endeavours like Facebook, Google, Amazon, Instagram, Airbnb, Uber etc. are showing us the way to the Postnormal Era. Platforms will change our understanding of the value creation processes and the leading business principles. They have already changed many industries – like publishing, media and hotel businesses – not to talk about the eminent power of social media platforms even within the (still) traditional businesses. According to Sangeet Paul Choudary there are three fundamental changes that accompany every shift in the industries that are getting transformed by the platform thinking: 1) new networked markets get created, 2) new sources of supply start to emerge and 3) new consumption patterns are created. With these kinds of impacts we surely can make a statement that this is going to be a revolutionary shift

My own interest in this topic begun already ten years ago when the first drafts of our community platform – GLOW – were introduced in Joensuu Science Park, Finland. We were able to draft and pilot the very first version of a community platform – a 1.0 version of a ‘competence platform’. Even though that experiment ended up pretty quickly due to management changes it enabled me to experience the virtues of such a revolutionary tool and was enough to keep my curiosity alive since that. That experiment had also a fundamental effect to my life, after the disappointment I started my second entrepreneurial career keeping in my mind the potential benefits of a well working competence platform.

During the last years one part of our business has been to follow the development of innovation environments, especially the co-working movement and the development of various supportive tools, such as platforms. We are highly interested in the type of platforms, where serendipity can be harnessed. They might be physical environments, artifacts, virtual community/ collaboration platforms, or most interestingly hybrids, where the key features are embedded in a productive way.

The vital elements for the configuration of such a comprehensive system are today already in disposal. The new type of solution – a ‘competence platform’ as we call it – will be in the future a vital part of business generation and freelancer movement. Competence platform forms a natural home base for vibrant communities. It supports coincidensity – a mix of diversity and density – in an optimal way. But it also offers enough tranquillity and solitude for insights and value creation. So in that respect it offers an ideal solution for harnessing serendipity. With competence platforms we are able to launch workspaces of the future, they are more a ‘collective’ than a coworking space or an office, more a breeding environment than an infrastructure. It’s clear that our solution is different from the other types of platforms, but in a strange way it still has some ambience and attractiveness of the ancient Agora.

There are many classifications of platforms according to their purpose and features. Because our competence platform is an emergent feature there is not a clear position for it in the classification tables and we have therefore classified the platform universe in four types illustrated below:

This classification expresses our way of thinking. We understand that there is always overlapping between them, anyhow the separation between exchange and development feels natural. To give some clarification of our approach we give examples:

  • Communication platforms – Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Enterprise Social Networks like Yammer, Jive etc.
  • Trading platforms – Amazon, Etsy, eBay etc.
  • Technology platforms – Apple and Android ecosystems, Linux. Ubuntu
  • Competence platforms – emerging, single elements already in the market

It is somehow surprising that the development of the first three types of platforms (communication, trading, technology) is rocketing, but so far the competence platforms have been neglected. Innovation intermediaries, like traditional science and technology parks, several types of incubation and acceleration services provided by the institutional players and regional development organizations etc. have so far been safe from the disruption. They have survived with their Triple Helix – Quadruple Helix mantra for a long time, and for some reason even the poor results and mediocre reputation have been ‘acceptable’. But the disruption will come, that’s for sure – and it’s coming in the form of competence platforms!

Why will the competence platforms disrupt the innovation intermediary market in the near future? Shortly, because they are more effective, engaging, interactive, agile and they are based on ‘respect serendipity’ principles. Competence platforms are supporting the vital phases of idea elaboration and business creation in several areas:

  • Team building and competence sharing according to the serendipity management principles
  • Idea generation and sharing
  • Combined idea and business model elaboration with an embedded business model canvas
  • Implementation activities with integrated project management tools

In a well working competence platform the interaction happens without the help of an outside moderator, if some moderation is needed it is based on peer-to-peer- communication and support. Competence platform creates a low-entry and almost a zero-friction environment providing both physical and virtual solutions to participants. But maybe the most important feature is, that this type of platform supports in an organic way the growth of an innovation ecosystem.

All copyrights by Ilkka Kakko.
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