This is part 1 in a series of posts about the unique strategic challenges facing research organisations.
The role of publicly-funded and non-profit research organisations is shifting. Traditionally, we have thought of them as repositories of knowledge and bastions of discovery. But, as technology advances and the challenges facing society become more complex, as funding sources change and as more fundamental research is picked up by the private sector, these conventional paradigms are being challenged. To remain relevant and effective, research organisations must evolve.
In this context we propose the concept of research organisations as complex, multi-modal platforms. Drawing from the platform models that have proven successful in the corporate world—from Tesla's product platforms to Google's innovation platforms—this concept positions research organisations as more than just isolated entities conducting research in their respective silos. Instead, it portrays them as dynamic platforms that can operate across various dimensions: as product platforms leveraging and redeploying their research components, as innovation platforms where their discoveries are extended, and as transactional platforms connecting stakeholders across value chains.
We believe that this has profound implications for strategic decision-making inside research organisations, but there is vast change that has to happen to build the supporting managmeent systems and cabailities to deliver on this. At present, research organisations are largely built around a logic of value-capture. Platform strategy, on the other hand, requires reconfiguring around value-creation in the form of reduced transaction costs and increased externalities.
While platforms make a compelling analogy for research organisations to look to, a deep understanding of how different platform models operate and are optimised is required to make these strategies work.
A product platform represents a suite of shared components, technologies, or services that form a foundation upon which a variety of related products or solutions can be developed. Successful product platforms leverage core capabilities to cater to a diverse range of customer needs, driving efficiency, scalability, and adaptability.
This enables Tesla to introduce new models to the market quickly and efficiently while offering a variety of vehicles that appeal to different customer segments.
In the realm of research organisations, adopting a product platform approach implies focusing on the development of broad, adaptable research capabilities that can be utilised across different contexts and applications. It involves recognising that the output of research—whether it's knowledge, technologies, methodologies, or data—can form a platform that underpins a multitude of solutions to diverse problems.
Much like how Tesla's vehicle platform serves as the foundation for its different car models, a research organisation's product platform might be its core research capabilities, upon which a multitude of projects, programs, and services are developed and delivered, for example. This approach allows for the maximisation of resources and expertise, creating the potential for diversified outcomes that can better serve the needs of society. More profoundly, if research can be transformed into well defined, reuseable components that can be variously combined with each other, then the problem-solving potential increases as the transaction costs decline.
An innovation platform is a base technology or a set of standards upon which other organisations or individuals develop complementary innovations. It serves as a foundation for an ecosystem of innovative activity. Companies that successfully operate as innovation platforms often set the standards for their respective industries and stimulate an array of innovative activities.
The platform not only underpins Google's suite of applications but also supports countless others developed by third-party developers, fostering a dynamic ecosystem of digital innovation.
Research organisations can similarly serve as catalysts for innovation. Research findings, technologies, and their knowledge base can serve as a springboard for others to develop new applications, products, or services. Take, for example, the Human Genome Project, initiated by the US National Institutes of Health and the Department of Energy, which provided a mapping and understanding of the human genome. This large-scale project served as an innovation platform spurring breakthroughs in biomedical research.
As innovation platforms, research organisations catalyse innovations that extend beyond their immediate research projects, fostering increased impact in an increasingly connected innovation landscape. This is predicated on making research outputs discoverable, accessible and resueable, which implies a large shift from the current focus on research publications as the primary output of research. What is required are comprehensive, well defined, documented and curated knowledge assets that can be made easily available to third-parties for the purposes of innovation. At the moment, the focus of most intellectaul property programs in research organisations is based, on the contraray, on capturing the monetary value of a limited proportion of research assets.
Finally, we have transactional platforms–operating in so-called two sided marketplaces–which serve as intermediaries that connect different user groups. These come in two flavours–direct or orthogonal–depending on interaction between the user groups.
Uber exemplifies direct transactional platforms. Drivers and passengers have always interacted through the traditional taxi service model, but Uber's platform significantly improves this interaction by offering on-demand service, transparent pricing, and easy digital payments.
Orthogonal transactional platforms facilitate interactions between groups that don't directly interact in a traditional marketplace.
A good example is Facebook, where advertisers and consumers, who traditionally didn't interact directly, are brought together. Facebook allows advertisers to reach consumers based on their specific interests, demographics, and online behaviors.
In the context of research organisations, a direct transactional approach can be seen when they connect funders with beneficiaries. For example, when they work with a state government to increase the quality of health care delivery by partnering with local health providers. A research organisation can add value by making these interactions more efficient, scalable, or innovative and improving how the benefits of research are distributed.
An orthogonal transactional approach might occur when research organisations bring together parties that don't typically interact directly. For instance, they might connect philanthropic funders with scientific researchers, government, advocacy groups and industry, creating new value through these multiple connections. This has the potential to build collaborations across traditional silos, fostering a more dynamic and inclusive research ecosystem.
Again, this implies a shift in how research organisations operate, in this case how partnerships are managed–the key here is to increase the externalities that the platform produces through these interactions. The higher the value that is created outside of the platform for the different participants, the greater the success of the platform.
Strategies for Operating as a Multi-modal Platform
In thinking about research organisations as multi-modal platforms, strategic action must align with the unique potentials of each platform type (product, innovation, and transactional).
For product platforms, research organisations need to focus on two things: the development and cultivation of broad, multi-disciplinary research capabilities that can be combined and deployed across an array of different problem sets; and, configuring research as 'components' that can be recombined and redeployed easily. By forming an adaptable knowledge base, they create a solid foundation that can address broad problem sets and serve diverse stakeholder needs. Much like Tesla uses its core technologies across different car models, research organisations can apply their research to multiple contexts and applications, maximising resources and expertise. However, this implies a high degree of consolidated and curated research capability, well beyond what happens in most research settings, which prefer speed and publication over developing components that can be easily reused internally.
As innovation platforms, research organisations must foster collaboration and integration, both internally and externally. Similar to how Google's Android facilitates worldwide application development, research organisations can catalyse external innovations by making research accessible and adaptable for different stakeholders. At the moment the main output from a research project is the research publication. But exapanding this to make the associated IP easily discoverable and reuseable (as data, technologies, tools etc.) is key to opening up the innovative potential of the platform.
As transactional platforms, the role of research organisations needs to expand to brokering meaningful connections between different stakeholders in the broad research value chain. Like Uber connects drivers and passengers and thereby unlocks value for both parties, research organisations can link funders with beneficiaries, researchers with industries, policy makers with publics and so on. The aim is to simultaneously reduce the transaction costs on both sides and increase the externalities that flow. Essentially they can create a facilitating environment where knowledge, resources, and opportunities are exchanged dynamically.
While each of these strategies in isolation can enhance the effectiveness of a research organisation, the reality is that these strategies need to be implemented simultneously to dramatically amplify impact, relevance, and reach. Research organisations are complicated, multi-modal platforms, operating across these different models.
Amazon is a good example of a multi-modal platform. Launched originally as an online bookstore, it quickly grew into a product platform offering an array of goods, from electronics to clothing to groceries. It did this by utilising its vast logistics and supply chain infrastructure, catering to diverse customer needs by redploying its core assets as components.
However, Amazon also developed as a leading innovation platform when it launched Amazon Web Services (AWS). AWS provides a suite of cloud-based services, including computing power, storage, and databases, effectively laying the groundwork for other businesses and developers to build their digital services. AWS itself is the basis for a wave of innovation by providing the building blocks for other companies to innovate on top of.
Amazon also operates as a direct transactional platform via its marketplace, connecting sellers and buyers. Amazon doesn't own the products sold by third-party sellers but facilitates transactions between sellers and buyers.
By operating as a multi-modal platform—product, innovation, and transactional—Amazon has managed to dominate mutiple segments and sectors and build a vast, interconnected ecosystem. It's core strategy has be based around reducing transaction costs and increasing externalities. In the process it has also diversified its revenue base and re-risked its overall financial performance. It's a testament to the potential of the multi-modal platform model, and provides an analogy for research organisations looking to pivot to platform strategies.
Conceptualising research organisations as multi-modal platforms holds huge potential for reshaping strategy. Through the lenses of product, innovation, and transactional platforms, we can improve their ability to serve as catalysers, enablers, and facilitators, which amplifies their unique role in the broader innovation ecosystem.
In theory platform strategy is simple: it boils down to reducing transaction costs and increasing positive externalities. In practice, however, identifying the where and the how of these strategies is the difficult part. There are plenty of great platforms to look at for inspiration (in fact going right back to at least ancient marketplaces), and if we are going to borrow strategy from the corporate world it is these that we need to look to for inspiration. However, it's more complex than that – a research organisation is operating across all these platform modes at the same time, and requires dedicated capabilities and systems to support that. These will look very different to the current set-up inside most organisations, which are largely focused on value capture–of intelelctual property, project funding, partnerships etc.–rather than lowering transaction costs and increasing externalities.
However, shifting to platform strategy will greatly enhance their effectiveness by reshaping how we perceive their roles and value creation activities. By considering themselves as multi-modal platforms, research organisations can amplify their impact and cultivate a research environment that is more responsive, adaptive, and relevant to external opportunity. The multi-modal platform model is a robust framework for research organisations seeking to address the complex research challenges of the 21st century, but one that is not yet in common use.