From Firms to Platforms to Commons

Many people see peer-to-peer platforms as game changers in the world of work with the potential of reinventing the economy and giving individuals the power of the corporation. Others are sceptical and warn that the new architectures of participation and choice are in reality architectures of exploitation, giving rise to a new class of workers, “the precariat”, people who endure insecure conditions, very short-term work and low wages with no collective bargaining power, abandoned by the employee unions, rendering them atomized and powerless.

I have just finished reading “PEERS INC”, an excellent book by Robin Chase. It is both a practical guide and a textbook that explains what is happening today in the (almost) zero transaction cost economy, the digitally enabled new world that has given rise to peer-to-peer platforms as the most modern iteration of the firm.

Robin Chase explains well how the patterns of work and the roles of workers are becoming very different from what we are used to: the industrial production of physical goods was financial capital-intensive, leading to centralized management and manufacturing facilities where you needed to be during predetermined hours. The industrial era created the employers, the employees and the shareholder capitalism we now experience.

In the network economy, individuals, interacting voluntarily with each other by utilizing the new platforms/apps and relatively cheap mobile devices they own themselves, can create value, and, even more importantly, utilize resources and available “excess capacity” as Robin Chase calls it. Business can be done in a much more sustainable way than was possible during the industrial era.

Work systems differ in the degree to which their components are loosely or tightly coupled. Coupling is a measure of the degree to which communication and power relation between the components are predetermined and fixed or not. Hierarchies and processes were based on tight couplings. The new post-industrial platforms are based on loose couplings following the logic of the Internet. Some people will work on one platform every now and then, while others will work simultaneously and continuously on many different platforms. The worker makes the decision about where, with whom and how much to work. The old dichotomy of employers and employees is a thing of the past.

In creative, knowledge-based work it is increasingly difficult to know the best mix of capabilities and tasks in advance. Recruiting is becoming a matter of expensive guesswork. Matching the patterns of work with the capabilities of individuals beforehand is getting close to impossible. What, then, is the use of the organizational theater when it is literally impossible to define the organization before we actually do something? What if the organization really should be a process of emergent self-organizing in the way the platforms make possible?

Instead of thinking about the organization let’s think about organizing as an ongoing thing. Then the managerial task is to make possible very easy and very fast emergent responsive interaction and group formation. It has to be as easy as possible for the best contributions from the whole network to find the applicable contextual needs and people.

Instead of the topology or organizational boxes that are often the visual representation of work, the picture of work is a live social graph. In markets the signalling may change; It is not just a system of prices that brings people together, but purposes, capabilities and reputation .

If you follow the valuations of firms today there is an ever-widening gap between the network-economy platforms and those companies driven by traditional asset leverage models. Investors and markets have voted very clearly. Traditional business economics focus on economies of scale derived from the resource base of the company, which scales much more slowly than the network effects the new firms are built on. The start-ups have a huge advantage over the incumbents.

In practice this means that the peer-to-peer platforms can attain the level of customer reach and network size required to capture almost any market, even as the size of the core (firm) stays relatively small.

The principles behind these trends are crucially important for the future of firms and society. It used to be argued that goods for which the marginal costs, the cost of producing one more unit of customer value, were close to zero were inherently public goods and should be made publicly available. Before the digital era, roads and bridges were commonly used as examples of these platforms. The maximum societal benefit from the initial investment is gained only if the use is as unrestricted as possible. People should have free, or almost free access to the - “platform”. Once the capital costs have been incurred, the more people there are sharing the benefits, the better it is for the whole value system.

This was the economic explanation for why roads were, and still are, under public ownership. The same logic applied to public libraries: a book can be read repeatedly at almost no extra cost.

A platform (company) should therefore be as open, as accessible and as supportive as possible to as many users as possible. This is unequivocally the route to optimum value creation. The scale of the Internet can create almost boundless returns without the core company growing at all. And against mainstream thinking, services do scale now as much as products did yesterday. One person can have a million customers and ten people can have a hundred million customers. The sheer size of an enterprise will tend to mean less in the digital network business than in the world of physical goods. The flip side is that companies don’t grow and create jobs in the way they used to. It is the networks that grow creating new earnings opportunities for people who are part of the network!

The central aggregator of enterprise value will no longer be a value chain, but a network space, where these new firms are fully market-facing and the customer experience is defined by apps. Our management thinking is slowly shifting towards understanding the new kernel of work: participative, self-organizing responsiveness.

Platforms are a valuable, shared resource making interactive value creation possible through organizing and simplifying participation. Sociologists have called such shared resources public goods. A private good is one that the owners can exclude others from using. Private was valuable and public without much value during the era of scarcity economics. This is now changing in a dramatic way, creating the intellectual confusion we are in the midst of today. The physical commons were, and still often are, over-exploited but the new commons follow a different logic. The more they are used, the more valuable they are for each participant.

The ongoing vogue of business design transforms asset-based firms to network-based platforms. Perhaps the next evolutionary step in the life of the firms is a transformation from platforms to open commons with shared protocols. Perhaps Bitcoin/Blockchain is going to be part of the new stack, the TCP/IP of business.

In the new commons and market networks, people with more potential ties become better informed and have more signalling power, while those outside and with fewer ties may be left behind. This is the new digital divide. Network inequality creates and reinforces inequality of opportunity.

In the age of abundance economics, public is much more valuable than private. Governments have always been platform creators. I sincerely hope they understand the tremendous opportunity we all face. The old demarcation line between public and private does not make any sense any more.

The principles of digital peer-to-peer commons can also enable the massive multi-stakeholder participation that is urgently needed to meet the challenge of climate change, as Robin Chase writes in her important book “PEERS INC”.