Achieving Greater Impact through Systems and Platforms

As we venture into the Fourth Industrial Revolution, we will likely face significant challenges while also encountering unprecedented opportunities. The good news is that the Fourth Industrial Revolution provides us with impressive capabilities to mobilize very large numbers of participants and achieve a scale of impact with far less resources than would have been unimaginable just a few decades ago. If we understand how to harness these capabilities, small moves, smartly made, can set big things in motion. But, as recent events suggest, we are at a crossroads — if we don’t mobilize quickly and effectively to address these challenges and opportunities, we are at growing risk of increasing turmoil.

We’ll explore two key capabilities in this posting: systems leadership and platform leverage. Both of these capabilities are amplified by the rich connectivity that is enabled by exponentially improving digital technology infrastructures around the world.

So, what is systems leadership?

Fundamental change can come from effective systems leadership — the ability to shape very large systems that organize participants on a global scale from a large number of independent and diverse organizations ranging from governments and international political entities to corporations, NGO’s and schools to pursue common objectives. We have long had large, global institutions but the challenge has been to connect participants from a broad range of these institutions and amplify their efforts to pursue common objectives together.

Systems can take many different forms, but they consist of large numbers of distinct entities that interact in particular domains in ways that produce evolving interdependence. A rainforest is an example of a system. So is the microbiome within our bodies, consisting of trillions of microbes interacting in complex ways. As a capability, we’re going to focus here on systems that involve interactions of people.

If we focus on systems that involve people, we find that many of these systems emerge spontaneously. Think of Silicon Valley, for example. No one determined in advance that there should be a Silicon Valley, but it has emerged and evolved as a complex and rapidly evolving system of relationships that seeks to change the world by harnessing the potential of digital technology.

Other systems are intentional — they are catalyzed by a small group of organizers with purpose. Religious and political movements rise and fall based on the robustness of the systems that their organizers craft to engage people.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution creates an opportunity to catalyze and shape the evolution of intentional systems that bring together many people from a large number of diverse institutions globally to achieve a common goal. Institutions can achieve a lot on their own, but their impact can be significantly amplified when broader systems help people to connect and build relationships in more structured ways across many independent and diverse institutions. Think of challenges like climate change, improving health and bringing marginalized populations into the global workforce. No single institution, no matter how large, will be able to address these global challenges.

While these systems can be shaped, they cannot be designed in detail. They involve people, after all, and these people play a significant role in evolving an intentional system, often taking it in unanticipated directions as they explore interactions that help them to leverage each other.

Even more challenging, no single intentional system exists in isolation — it is embedded in a broad range of other economic, social and political systems. These broader systems are evolving in complex ways and interacting with intentional systems in unexpected ways that make it essential to recognize that these systems cannot be planned in great detail — at best, goals and principles for action can be articulated to help shape direction.

Intentional systems can be scaled much more rapidly and to much greater levels because of the enhanced global computing and communication infrastructures that make it possible for large numbers of participants to interact in much more sustained and richer ways, faster and cheaper than ever before. The resources required to mobilize and sustain these intentional systems have come down dramatically as a result of these technology infrastructures.

And, what are platforms?

These same infrastructures also support a second and related capability in the Fourth Industrial Revolution: the design and deployment of large scale platforms that can facilitate interactions among participants within intentional systems.

Platforms provide a governance structure and a set of standards and protocols designed to enhance the potential for interactions and impact among participants at a scale that would otherwise be inconceivable. While many platforms are significantly enhanced by digital technology, the key to the success of platforms resides in the governance structure and standards and protocols that are then enabled by digital technology. Behind most great intentional system there is an effective platform that helps to scale and support the system operating on it.

Platforms can take many different forms. Most of the platforms that people talk about today are aggregation platforms designed to help people connect around narrowly defined transactions, like buying and selling products or services. Mobilization platforms are far rarer — these are focused on supporting intentional systems where participants are coming together to achieve shared goals. Some of the early examples of these kinds of platforms include Wikipedia and open source software platforms. While mobilization platforms can help participants to achieve significant impact globally, this impact can be further enhanced by evolving into learning platforms that are explicitly designed to help all the participants to accelerate performance improvement through feedback loops and other learning mechanisms.

Platforms can be designed in more detail than the systems that run on them, but even here the most successful platforms are those that evolve over time as the platform operator learns how the participants are actually using the platform and what additional functionality can be added to enhance the interactions within the system.

Effectively integrating systems and platforms

So, the really exciting opportunity is to merge these two capabilities — systems and platforms — to achieve far greater impact. Both systems and platforms have the potential to unleash network effects and increasing returns so that, the more participants are drawn in, the more value each participant receives and the more impact that the participants in aggregate can have against their shared goals. The increase in value and impact is not simply linear; it grows exponentially as more and more participants join.

The increasing returns made possible by systems and platforms become even more compelling when one looks at the role of the digital technology infrastructures underlying these platforms and systems. Because of the continuing exponential improvement in price/performance of this digital technology, platforms can reach larger and larger numbers of participants and enable richer and richer interactions at much lower cost than was ever possible in the past.

This is why small moves, when made smartly in the context of appropriate systems and platforms, can achieve ever increasing impact.

Seeking to address this opportunity

Given this potential, the World Economic Forum has organized a Global Futures Council on Platforms and Systems (the “Council”), including members from a diverse set of institutions around the world. The Council’s goal is to explore the approaches required to fully harness the potential of systems and platforms in addressing global challenges and opportunities. The Council is ultimately seeking to identify key design and leadership principles that can lead to greater impact at both the system and platform levels. The Council’s ultimate goal is to define these principles and identify one or two arenas where we can work with emerging systems leaders to help increase their impact by applying these principles.

The Council is focused first of all on the design principles that can catalyze and evolve more effective intentional systems to amplify the efforts of their participants. What’s the right balance between design and adaptation in these intentional systems? What can leaders do to enhance the impact of these intentional systems? What is different about leadership of intentional systems that span multiple organizations versus leadership of a single organization? How should participants in these systems be organized to enhance the potential for local initiative while maintaining appropriate focus on broader systems goals?

The Council would welcome suggestions regarding intentional systems that you believe have achieved significant global impact in the past so that the Council could target them to study what contributed to their success. If you know of any specific design principles or leadership principles that you believe leads to greater systems impact, the Council would also welcome your ideas on this front.

On the platform front, the Council is also looking for suggestions of platforms that have been particularly effective in helping to mobilize intentional systems so that the Council could target them for deeper study. While there has been a lot of attention to commercial platforms that help people to execute narrowly defined transactions, what are the leading examples of platforms designed to mobilize people in a sustained way to address significant social and economic challenges? What were the key design principles? What governance mechanisms were particularly helpful? How did they evolve?

Bottom line

The Fourth Industrial Revolution gives us the capability to amplify the impact of system initiatives on a global scale. The Council’s goal is to help intentional systems turn this from potential into actual impact. The Council needs your help in doing this and we welcome any and all suggestions.

— Authored by: John Hagel, co-chairman, Deloitte LLP Center for the Edge, and Gemma Mortensen, chief global officer, Change.org