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Solace blog

26th February 2016

Platforms, platforms everywhere but little sense to make…

My inbox is inundated these days with people talking about platforms. No, these are not the variety of platform that you catch a train from nor the type you give a speech from or put something on. No these are not what I’m talking about. They are usually technology-linked. The people in our ICT team talk about the ‘digital platform’, and we have invested heavily in our ‘open data platform’. There is talk about ‘government as a platform’. What does any of this mean? Does it mean anything at all?

The answer is yes, but all the examples above mean something very different, one of the big problems is that the concept of a platform has been driven by two different professional communities who historically have had very little to do with each other, but, if they got together more often, could probably change the world, and outside of local government, already have.

The tech world is awash with platforms, Windows is a platform and Apple’s Mac OS is a platform, put simply it is a base to which things can be added, a stage into which or onto which component parts can place. Actually, you can have digital channels to access council services that have been placed onto a “digital platform”, and many councils have. The result is quicker access to services by a different channel. But the organisational paradigm remains the same. People outside the organisation are accessing services provided within it, it is like a vending machine, you put in taxes and get out services, the offer is set, you can see it behind the glass and you can’t change it. It may be a digital vending machine, but it’s a vending machine nonetheless, and the platform it dispenses from, doesn’t change easily.

The less regarded partner in this debate is a community of professionals revolving around a discipline known as organisational development. For them, the concept of a platform organisation has been in development for some time, and it’s a game changer. As Cassels puts it: “What emerges from the observation of major organisational changes in the last two decades…the crisis of an old,
powerful but excessively rigid model associated with the large vertical corporation.”

Cisco was probably the first platform organisation. Created in 1985 it grew by 2,356% between 95 and 99, to a value 4 times that of General Motors. Its success due to the fact that it applied to itself the networking logic it was applying to its customers. It organised in/around a platform all relationships with its customers, suppliers, partners and employees. Building a network of suppliers it cut its own manufacturing to the bone – from 30 manufacturing sites to 2, by 1999 83% of orders fulfilled directly by a network of suppliers. So what did it get paid for? R&D (providing insight), attracting and managing the suppliers on its platform (growing the market and building trust), conveying market needs to the supplier network (customisation, market shaping), building a marketing platform for its suppliers (cost reduction and channel shift)

Following CISCO’s example, the platform organisations of today are household names and they operate by building a platform that attracts participants and adds value to the flow of data between them, hence eBay is one of the largest shopping venues in the world, but owns no shops, Airbnb is one of the largest room providers, but owns no hotels, Apple is the biggest app provider but develops very few apps. The competitive advantage that platform organisations have is that their platform gets better every time someone uses it, and that usefulness attracts customers and
providers alike to come back. So rather than talk techno about our platforms, we should be thinking about a new organisational form and its relevance to local government. Thoughts on a message please, whichever platform you use to deliver it.

By Max Wide, Strategic Director for Business Change, Bristol City Council and Solace Spokesperson on Innovation and Commissioning