Relationships vs Transactions

27 Mar

Got a comment from one of my colleagues – a chap called Martin Abbot – by email a couple of days ago with respect to my last post about institutional innovation.  Whilst I’ve been planning to find some time to write a follow up that links these ideas through to SOA and SaaS I thought it might be worth just posting the question and my email response.  It’s not a ‘proper’ blog post – and so is a bit messy – but the questions and my rushed answer are probably worth sharing.

The Question

Is the idea of moving away from transactional relationships to ones that are mutually beneficial not a little at odds with SaaS and SOA generally? Both of these seem to support the commoditization of resources and are therefore inherently transactional in nature.”

The Answer

Well I guess that there are a few things:

Lots of stuff tends towards commoditisation and so in many ways the argument Martin makes is understandable.  Even based purely on the use of ‘commodity’ services, however, I guess you could make the following arguments:

  • Commodity doesn’t necessarily mean wholly standardised.  In the future we’re going to need to support mass customisation of services to support our customers businesses.  In a SaaS/SOA environment this basically requires us to have many customisation points built into the software that support both multi-tenancy and customisation.  The key here is to build the software for customisation in a few key dimensions from the ground up rather than rely on your ability to bastardise it later.  To be able to understand the 20% key dimensions that need to be customisable, however, you need a pretty deep understanding of your consumers (I realise that this point is only tenuously related but I need to establish it first…)
  • The second point is that even if you are only delivering commodity services there is always the opportunity to a) understand your customers needs better and b) deliver services that are more appropriate to them through your improved contextual understanding.  This requires collaborating partners to share information much more freely in order to get the best service.  When you combine this with the ability to mass-customise services you can see that both the provider and consumer get best advantage when they each fully understand the capabilities and aspirations of the other.  This depth of relationship requires a degree of trust that goes above and beyond a traditional zero-sum approach, however.
  • From a provider perspective you also need to work closely with your partners to understand the effectiveness (or not of your services) in order to be able to shorten your feedback loop and accelerate the improvement of your capabilities.  Again this is a win-win scenario potentially as both parties get greater value.

All of this is fine from the perspective of thinking of two parties as ‘customer’ and ‘provider’ when the main goal is the consumption of services on a transactional basis.  i.e. there are still some low level advantages to both parties of creating a closer relationship.

Beyond this however is the real value.  If you build trust across organisations that offer some part of the value chain then the more important question becomes how you can leverage your capabilities together in order to improve existing offerings or – perhaps more importantly – create new services or offerings to existing or new markets.  The key here is that each service provider may have a fairly conventional view of what services they offer and who they serve but when each comes together to look at how they collaborate to deliver  value and how each others services could be used to approach their customers then a new perspective opens up.  Once this perspective is opened they can then begin to consider how each would need to optimise their services in order to create these new markets and this in turn can help them to consider how these ideas impact (and potentially improve) their ‘traditional’ offerings.  When you broaden this from two parties into everyone who performs any value adding activity within and across value webs you can see that the opportunities for collaboration and new value creation rise exponentially.

This is also applicable when you think of ‘customers’ in the traditional sense rather than groups of suppliers working together;  customers and their providers exist in a value-web and therefore by forging strong relationships and inviting suppliers to help improve the end product the overall value for everyone is greatly enhanced.  This is also a two-way dialogue since providers can use Web 2.0 techniques to bring their consumers into the service creation process and thereby become co-creators of the products and services that the company offers – an ideal way to balance push and pull models.

Even if we think about products and services that tend towards commoditisation – and many things do – we can see that the reality is that such commoditisation is inevitable and accelerating; sharing information with trusted partners – whilst it may hasten the commoditisation of certain services – more than offsets this by opening up far grander opportunities to utilise these services in new ways.  Furthermore if your services are subject to commoditisation then they are also subject to economies of scale and leveraging partners to find new ways of using these commoditised services to build new markets is a much smarter move than withdrawing into yourself and becoming obsessed with efficiency and cost reduction. 

To paraphrase Bill Joy, there are far more smart people outside your organisation than in it and maximising your ability to innovate by mutually leveraging this smartness is increasingly going to be a necessary capability.  As I stated in my original post, I agree that there are many things to be worked out in order to move people into this new way of working but I believe that those who make the transition will create and reap significantly greater value than those who do not.


My anticipated next post was to actually look at how service delivery platforms and SOA could help to accelerate the types of relationships that I discussed.  I’m still aiming to write that post but decided that there was value in exposing this information in the interim as a) it is related and adds to the discussion and b) given my excessive commitments at the moment it was easier than actually finding the time to write the post I need to at this point in time 😉


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