I’ve been doing a fair bit of writing on supply chain visibility and how hot B2B network solutions built on a public cloud architecture have become. So when MIT invited me to their MIT Platform Strategy Summit a few weeks ago I was intrigued. I thought their program could provide some additional insights into what I’m seeing in the supply chain software markets I study. The most insightful presentation was given by Peter Evans, a Vice President at the Center for Global Enterprise (CGE). The CGE is a nonprofit research group.
Peter presented some research from a survey he had helped organize in conjunction with Annabelle Gawer. In this research project, experts and scholars from around the world collaborated to develop the first global dataset of platform companies. Their goals was to better understand the global growth and scope of companies built with platform business models.
Around unfamiliar terms, it is best to begin with a definition. “Platforms have unique characteristics, with a central feature being the presence of network effects.” Network effects are present when the value of a solution rises in proportion to the number of users that make use of that solution. So, for example, a telephone is worthless if no one else uses them. But additionally, the more users, the more people that can be contacted using a telephone, the more value that telephone has. In short, the value is not just in the machinery, it is in the network.
We have seen in the last few decades an explosion of new digital platform companies – their survey identified 176 of them with a market cap of over $1 billion – that thrive based on the power of the Internet. These include hugely valuable companies like Google (their search engine), Apple (their iPhone app marketplace), Amazon, and Facebook. These transaction platforms create value by facilitating “transactions between different types of individuals and organizations that would otherwise have difficulty finding each other.”
But Microsoft, Oracle, Intel, SAP and Salesforce – which at the time of this publication had a market cap of $911 billion – form a different kind of platform, an innovation platform. “This category includes companies with large third party developer networks… (and) derive much of their value and innovation by co-creating products and services with other firms in their platform ecosystems.”
SAP and Oracle are leading providers of supply chain solutions so I follow them closely. And my impression is that while SAP and Oracle continue to rely extensively on system implementation and consulting partners, they are both deemphasizing their reliance on software partners as they seek to develop private cloud solutions that can be implemented more quickly, upgraded much more easily, and ultimately offer a much better ROI. In the vocabulary of platforms, they are changing their curation policies in order to improve the platform’s value.
One of the speakers at this event was Sangeet Choudary. Mr. Choudary was the coauthor of one of the seminal books – the Platform Revolution – in this domain. In this book, curation was defined as “the process by which a platform filters, controls, and limits the access of users to the platform, the activities they participate in, and the connections they form with other users.
One of the event’s panel discussions included the CEOs of some young workplace platform companies. A good deal of the discussion on this panel involved how carefully these executives focus on effective curation in order to insure companies looking to hire workers, and potential employees, both have successful outcomes.
With that as background, what were the main insights that Mr. Evans provided from his survey?
- Profits are very uneven by region. North American companies are capturing far greater profits than the platforms in other regions. Further, the most valuable platform companies tend to combine aspects of transaction platforms and innovation platforms. “These companies – Apple, Google, Facebook, Amazon, Alibaba and XiaoMi – have a market cap of $2 trillion.” This clearly has not been lost on ERP firms, as Infor’s acquisition of GT Nexus demonstrates.
- There is a lot more activity in Asia and Africa than you would expect. Europe has been a real laggard in the creation of platform companies.
- Platform companies offer many advantages to the economies they serve. They have driven up productivity through highly efficient matching of buyers and sellers in e-commerce marketplaces. They have improved productivity by supporting more efficient asset utilization in the sharing economy; this has also allowed individuals to be winners in this new economy. They “have been important sources of innovation. For example, in 2014, nine U.S. platforms were awarded 11,585 patents.” Finally, they have created at least 1.5 million direct jobs.
There are interesting insights that can be derived from studying platform companies. I suspect the following insight will resonate with supply chain executives, “The traditional levers of action of controlling centrally what is done within the firm or exerting power over suppliers will not be sufficient, as much of the value is created outside the traditional boundaries of the firm.” In short, effective supply chain managers will increasingly need to become effective curators of network value.