What Does it Mean to Think of Your Business as a Service?

Just read a really interesting post from Henry Chesbrough about what it means to think about your business as a service.  It touches on something that has always seemed obvious to me but which also seems to be not well understood.  It’s important as it’s both subtle but ultimately highly disruptive.

In order to set some context about how businesses typically think of services, Henry first points to an illustration of the value chain model and the place of ‘services’ within this illustration:


He points out that services are often thought of as a second-class citizen in this view of the world, merely being tacked onto the end of the process to assist customers in adopting the ‘real’ value – i.e. that which has been designed to be pushed at them through the tightly integrated value chain.

He then goes on to suggest that this isn’t the best view of what services should be in reality and that there is immense value in thinking about – and delivering the value of – a business as a service.

I have been arguing on my blog for a long time that the challenge facing most organisations is to reimagine themselves as a set of ‘business services’ (or business capabilities) that are organised around value rather than customer segments, functional disciplines or physical assets.  Such a move can make them more adaptable, help them to specialise by disaggregating non-core capabilities to partners and unleash innovation on a scale not possible in today’s internally focused and tightly coupled organisations.  Looking at different kinds of value can also help us to sustainably disaggregate and then re-aggregate the organisation based on cultural and economic differences (so based around relationship management business models, infrastructural business models, IP development business models or portfolio management business models).

90% of people I talk to still equate services with the value chain definition highlighted above, however, and miss the core point that a move to a ‘services based world’ isn’t that the small area of the traditional value chain called ‘services’ becomes the most economically attractive (i.e. consulting is better than product development and so we should concentrate more there) but rather that every participant in the traditional value chain has to realign themselves to take responsibility for ‘hiding’ the assets needed to deliver their outcome.  In doing this they simplify consumption for their customers and create an ability to work with far more value web participants outside the boundaries of a single organisation.  Equally importantly such a realignment sets the scene for them to participate in pull-oriented value webs rather than merely being a dumb participant in a pre-set and push-oriented value chain.  This does not mean that they are only specialising on the traditional ‘services’ part of the value chain and sourcing all the non-services parts from partners – rather it means that every organisation has to identify the correct business model for each component and then increase the scope of each to wrap up whatever physical, human or information assets are required to deliver that as a specialised service.  As an example manufacturers (an infrastructural business with heavy dependency on physical assets and hence far from the definition of services we started with) will still need manufacturing capability, but they will ‘expose’ the whole capability (i.e. people, processes and technologies) as a service to others (who follow different business models related to IP development or relationships).

Such a shift to greater specialisation around the delivered value whilst simultaneously extending the required scope of expertise required to deliver that value as a service is an important point; more often than not such realignments will cut across settled business boundaries and drive ‘mini-vertical-integration*’ within the context of a particular business type and outcome.

We could therefore consider a reorganisation of businesses for a service economy as a move away from the value chain model we started with to one in which:

  • ‘services’ become core offerings rather than merely a value add and represent both the external boundary and a definition of the specialised outcome delivered.  Internally the service will be implemented by a ‘mini internal value chain’ tightly optimised to deliver its differentiating IP through the appropriate combination of physical, information and human resources; and
  • a ‘value web’ coordinates services into broader networks by aggregating value via the coordination of outcomes from many specialised service providers.

Effectively you could say that the ‘value chain’ (i.e. explicit, known implementation) becomes internal to the service provider whilst the ‘value web’ (i.e. external coordination of outcomes) becomes the external expression of how value is aggregated.

Either way there is an important mind shift that needs to be made here – moving to a model in which you make your business available as a service has profound implications for what does or does not constitute a specialisation for your organisation and on how you organise.  You may find that many things you have traditionally done internally actually have no intrinsic value and can be ceded to specialised partners, whereas subsets of many of the things that have over-simplistically been considered ‘horizontal’ (and thus easily outsourced – so for example HR, Marketing or IT) come to represent significant value when you look to optimise against outcomes.  Only be re-orienting around value will we gain the insights necessary to understand the nature of the services we wish to offer, the optimum business model to adopt for each and the skills and assets required by the cross-functional teams who will deliver it.

P.S.  As an example – I briefly discussed how moves to specialise around value might affect IT departments last week.

*I should also state that when talking about ‘vertical integration’ in this context I mean within a particular business type (i.e. relationship management, infrastructure, IP development or portfolio management) rather than _across_ business types – such horrific ‘vertical integration’ across the whole value chain of different kinds of value (as beloved by traditional telecoms incumbents and, it seems, Apple) creates walled gardens that restrict consumer freedom, create asymmetrical power relationships and inhibit innovation.  As a result I believe that this is something to be strictly avoided if we want open and competitive markets (and increasingly enforced by regulation if necessary).

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