Tag Archive for 'value chain'

The Information Value Chain and its Network

The Information Value Network is an economic theory for Internet businesses, which incorporates my original thinking of the Information value chain. It describes how data openness, interoperability and data portability allows for greater value creation for both service providers and their users. It is proposed by myself, and is inspired by two existing theories: David Ricardo’s 1817 thesis of comparative advantage and Michael Porter’s 1985 concept of the Value Chain.

The theory on information value-chains and networks
Information Value Chain
Figure 1: Information Value Chain

The information value chain recognises the value activities required in the use of information. It represents the cycle of a common information product, with the activities most likely undertaken by one entity.

The activities can be broken down into two components within the value chain.
1) Primary value activities relate to aspects of the chain that are the core information product. They are data creation, information generation, and knowledge application.
2) Supporting value activities relate to aspects of the chain that assist the core information product. They are storage, processing, and distribution.

As an example of the above, a photo can be a core information product — with a single image being “data”. The adding of EXIF data, titles, and tags creates information as it enables additional value unlocked in the context of the core information product (the photo).

Knowledge is created when the photos are clustered with other similar photos, like a collection of photos from the same event. Each of the information products may present their own information value, but in the context of each other, they reveal a story of the time period when the pictures where taken — unlocking additional value.

The secondary activities of storage, processing, and distribution of the information product are integral to it. However, they are merely a process that assist in the development of the product and as such are not to be considered the core activities.

Another point to note is that these secondary processes can occur at any three stages of the information process. Computing processing is required when a photo is taken (data creation), when it is edited with additional information like a title (information), and when it is grouped with other photos with similar characteristics (knowledge). Similarly, cloud computing storage or local storage is required for any of those three stages of the information product, with distribution necessary at any stage as well.

Information Value Network
Figure 2: Information Value Network

Whereas the information value chain describes the activities of an information product, it does not acknowledge the full environment of an information product. Information is an intangible good that is utilised by humans (and with increased sophistication over time, by machines) to assist in their own internal thinking. It does not live in isolation, and its presence alongside other information products and their value development cycles can have a huge impact.

In the diagram above, the information value chain has been extended when looking at the context of multiple entities.

In the network, several entities may agree to exchange information products created through their own respective activities, in order to add additional value to each other. Information and knowledge both derive their value from having as many sources as possible; whether it be data sources, but also processed data in the form of information.

Extending the photo example use earlier, another entity may have created an information product relating to geolocation. It has acquired the geo-coordinates of regions, presented them in the appropriate geo standards, and placed them on a map. The owner of a set of activities that generated the photo, can match their geodata to this other activity process and have the photos mapped by location — as well as analysis or specific types of visualisation that can be can be done due to proximity with other photos.

Background to the concepts supporting the theory
Comparative advantage
The law of comparative advantage in international trade states that, if a country is more productive producing one good over another country, it should focus on allocating its resources to that production. Further, if a country has an absolute advantage producing multiple goods, it should focus only on the one where it yields the most productive capacity.

By specializing in producing the products with the higher comparative advantage — even if they across the board are the most efficient at doing them all — the world can expand total world output with the same quantity of resources due to specialisation.

Value chain
A Value Chain Analysis describes the activities that take place in a business and relates them to an analysis of the competitive strength of the business. It is one way of identifying what activities are best undertaken by a business and which are best provided by others (ie, out-sourced).

It helps a company look are what its core competitive advantage is, and segments the activities surrounding its competitive advantage, in order to realize efficiencies and better value creation.

Data, Information, and knowledge
Data can be defined as an object that represents something. Typically data lacks meaning, although it derives meaning when context is added.

Information on the other hand, is what is considered when connecting different data objects — the actual linkages between data objects are what is information. Meaning can be derived through the context of data.

Likewise, knowledge is the extension in this chain of development. That being, the application of information in the context of other information.

Comment on the economic incentive for firms
Industries that operate with the purpose of generating, managing or manipulating information products will benefit by working with other like organisations. It reduces cost, increases engagement, and more fundamentally will increase total value creation.

Cost
By focusing on what an entity has a comparative advantage in and identifying its true competitive advantage, it can focus its resources on the activity that ultimately maximise the entity’s own value.

Take as a case in point a photo sharing website, that is aiming to be both a storage facility (ie, ‚”unlimited storage”) as well as a community site.

  • Feature development: Development resources will face competition to build functionality for the photo service, to cater for two completely purposes. This will lead to opportunity cost in the short-term, and potentially the long term if dealing in a highly competitive market.
  • Money: Any resource acquisition, whether it be external spending or internal allocations, face conflict as the company is attempting to win on two different types of businesses
  • Conflict of interest: The decision makers at the company do not have aligned self interest and face conflict. For example, if a user puts their photos at a pure storage service, management will do what they can to maximise that core value. If the company also does community, management may trade storage value (such as privacy) for the benefits of building the other aspect of the business.

Engagement
In the context of web services, engagement of a user is a key priority. Economic value can be derived by a service due to attention, conversion, or simply a satisfied customer through the experienced offered.

If a service provider focused on their core competency, value can be maximised both for a users engagement and a provider’s margin.

A commerce site aims to convert users and make them customers through the purchase of goods. Commerce sites rely on identity services to validate the authenticity of a user, but it’s not part of their core value offering. In the case of one business, the web designers took away the Register button. In its place, they put a Continue button with a simple message: “You do not need to create an account to make purchases on our site. Simply click Continue to proceed to checkout. To make your future purchases even faster, you can create an account during checkout.”

The results: The number of customers purchasing went up by 45%. The extra purchases resulted in an extra $15 million the first month. For the first year, the site saw an additional $300,000,000.

The significance of this is that by attempting to manage multiple aspects of the experience of their users, this business actually lost potential business. If they integrated their commerce site with an identity site experienced in user login, they may have leveraged this expertise a lot earlier and minimised the opportunity cost.

Value creation
Continuing the example of a photo, let’s assume multiple services work together using the same photo, and that there is full peer-to-peer data portability between the services.

The popular social-networking site Facebook described a technique where they were able to speed up the time they served photos to their users. In a blog post, they state that by removing the EXIF data — metadata that describes the photos (like location, shutter speed, and others — they were able to decrease the load on the servers to produce the photo.

This is fine in the context of Facebook, where the user experience is key and speed matters. But if a person uploaded their photos there as their only copy, and they wanted to use the same photos in a Flickr competition — whose community of passionate photographers puts a different criteria on the photos — they would be at a loss.

In a world that has true data portability, the photos (say the RAW images) could be stored on a specialised storage solution like Amazon S3. The online version of Photoshop could edit the RAW images to give an enhanced quality image for the Flickr community; whereas Google App engine could be used for a mass editing that is computer-intensive, in order to process the multiple RAW photos into EXIF-stripped images for distribution within Facebook. The desktop application Cooliris could access the newly edited photos that still retain their EXIF data, and have them visualised in its proprietary software, which gives a unique experience of viewing the information product.

The significance of the above example is that each service is using the same core information product, but for a completely different purpose. On the surface, all services would appear to be competing for the information product and “lock in” the user to only use it on their service. But the reality is, better value can be generated with their peered data portability. And in some cases, greater efficiencies realised — allowing the web services to focus on what their true comparative advantage is.

Comment on value-creation versus value-capture
This paper makes a explicit explanation on how value is generated. It does not, however, explain how that value can be captured by firms.

It is beyond the scope of this particular discussion to detail how value capture can occur, although it is an important issue that needs to be considered. Web businesses repeatedly have proven to fail to monetise on the web effectively.

This however is more a industry issue than a specific issue related to openness, and this paper makes the case of firms to focus on their core competitive advantage rather than how to monetise it. Instead it suggests that more firms can monetise, which creates total economic output to increase. How the output is shared amongst market participants is a matter of execution and specific market dynamics.

A solution for the newspaper industry

Newspaper executives around the world are scrambling at a solution to the new marketplace. NewsCorp’s CEO in Australia remarked a few months ago that they only make 1/10th of the revenue on websites as they do through print – but with declining print circulation due to the popularity of online news – this is really affecting the bottom line of the industry. Unfortunately, they’ve been attacking news aggregators despite the fact that that’s the solution to their problems – it’s now a changed marketplace that they need to embrace.

The market dynamics are different now
Newspapers existed at a time when information was scarce. They performed the role of aggregating news (as well as creating it), and distributing it to the public through expensive channels which could not be easily recreated.

In today’s age, information is in abundance and is drowning out consumers – with a distribution environment that is now cheap. Further, the role of news aggregation can be done more efficiently through online tools. However this has caused a problem – because in the value chain of online news, the aggregators are the ones that are able to monetise the content. Because people don’t have time to read all the news now, they rely on aggregators that pull content from a variety of sources – and then only click on stories that capture their attention. These aggregators can place sponsored posts or advertisements alongside other articles, and so have found a new way to monetise content in the ‘click economy’.

However from the content providers point of view, they’ve invested time and money in creating unique content, only for it to be ignored by consumers because they no longer have a captive audience – and for aggregators who do, to be monetising content they didn’t pay for.

Google News - aggregator

Newspapers need to drop advertising and think about the entire value chain
Content can no longer rely on advertising as a revenue model – as I’ve argued before, it’s a broken bubble economy. But premium content can exist as a paid subscriber service. This seems to be the direction newspapers are heading. But I think it’s a mistake to enact paid subscriptions on all newspaper websites – it will kill demand and will not scale across the entire industry, other than for the few globally recognised newspapers and strong national brands where their location gives them a comparative advantage (ie, LA times for entertainment; Washington Post for US politics; Wall Street Journal for the capital markets).

Rather than charge consumers to subscribe to a newspaper, what the newspaper companies should be doing is creating a new type of organisation that can pool their resources. They should do this in the same way they did with the associated presses around the world several decades ago, where they can source expensive overseas content in a cooperative, which can then be distributed by newspapers in their niche markets.

Newspapers should create niche aggregators modeled in the same way Google News, Techmeme and its political cousin memeorandum (shown below) have done. Consumers will pay a subscription fee to these aggregators to get access to certain sources of information. And newspapers will get proportionally remunerated through the co-operatative making money on the aggregators service, but also control the distribution of their premium content which can be monetised further down the value chain (ie, once a consumer visits their website).

memeorandum

The model scales because a consumer has only one organisation to deal with, and can control their content consumption and payments. The aggregators also allow the consumer to define what sources of information they value. Better still, this controlled environment of information distribution puts more onus on the content creators to generate quality product. If people include them in their aggregator subscription but never click on that particular organisations content, no one can be faulted but the content creator themselves for not creating compelling content.

Better still, market dynamics can come into play. Part of the function of an aggregator is to cluster stories. This allows for a fair way of distributing the content – the news source that pays a premium can get a higher weighting in this clustering. So an aggregator may have 50 sources that all get clustered as one headline; based on a sources ability to pay per headline, will determine how much the dominate in weighting. This then puts the onus on the newspaper to create a better sales force that can monetise content later down the value chain, which can subsidise this discovery phase of the value chain.

Is this the answer?
Who really knows but its a step in the right direction. With consumers paying to subscribe to an aggregator, they’re getting better value through diversity of inputs – and newspaper companies will get remunerated on how much content they provided as a proportion of the total attention by a consumer on the aggregator. The future of content will be driven by the subscription model, and this is a way that achieves that with the best value for a consumer.

Newspapers are reliant on the aggregators as a source of traffic and discovery. Rather than trying to kill them – they should copy them, license the technology and control the discovery phase of news consumption now crucial for today’s information-overloaded consumer.

What’s holding back newspapers from going down this path? They are too used to being the aggregators themselves. Instead, they need to realise that they must specialise now. They should focus on creating great content (a discussion in itself), and let technologists drive the discovery phase.

The value chain for information

Lately, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about the value chain of information, based on the Porter model of doing a value chain analysis . Given there is an undeniable trend to an knowledge-based economy (that is, if we’re not already there!), it seems pretty valuable that we should at least understand the different facets in the value chain to better understand the information sector.

Below are some thoughts about what I think are the broad aspects of the value system, with some commentary under each to help you understand my thinking. I’ve used common social computing sites to help illustrates the concepts, as everyone can relate to them. Also my definitions for data, information, and knowledge .

value chain is sweet
The value chain
1) Data collection
– value is in the storage
Competitive advantage: who offers the consumers the lowest price for the most storage. You should not just consider this in terms of cost in hosting but also about whether is costs the user their rights to control over some of their data.
Example: MySpace is where you store all your demographic data; SmugMug is where you store all your photos (which I consider data)

2) Data processing
– value is in the ability to manipulate the data
Competitive advantage: The infrastructure to process vasts amount of data at the highest output with the lowest cost
Example: Facebook calculates how many friends you have. The raw computing power to calculate the information requires substantial computing power, which is why Friendster fell when it captured the imagination of the industry as the first major social networking site.

3) Information generation
– Value is in the type and diversity of information. The connection of data (objects) is what generates information. Requires unique ability to understand what data inputs to pull.
Competitive advantage: Ability to access the most data (ie, relationships with the data storage components in the chain), and be able to creatively apply the data in a unique way.
Example: LinkedIn allows me to know that I am two degrees separated from a certain individual. The ability for LinkedIn to do that is a combination of what data they can use as well as the ability to process it. Essentially, the creativity of the company’s management to determine the feature’s value and the relationships with storage vendors or methods of using their own storage. In a DataPortability enabled world, it’s not so much how much data you can store of a user – but how much you can access from the storage vendors ie, relationships with these vendors.

4) Knowledge application
– value is in the application of information
Competitive advantage is on the application of information in a unique way that has not been done before
Example: A network analysis of my social graph. So if a social networking sites can tell me that 48% of my friends are male; and another piece of information that 98% of them are heterosexual; then therefore it is likely I am a straight male. The ability to derive insight, despite the multiple piece of information available, is filtered by those with the unique ability to recognise application of information in certain ways. The determination that I am straight is inference, which is a higher order type value as opposed to just information (which is grounded in hard data and more based on fact).

Implications of the value chain
It is important to note, and why it will be difficult for you to conceptualise the above, is that the Internet industry which is the backbone of the Information Sector of the economy, is still relatively immature. Flickr for example does most of the value chain – they store my photos, they allow me to make changes to the photos and add addition data like tags; they generate information by allowing me to organise my photos into sets (hence giving more value to the photo by putting it into context). And of course, they allow for knowledge application through their community – people passing by, leaving comments, is quite a unique thing that is unique to Flickr.

By better understanding the value chain, hopefully we can also realise that business can thrive by focussing on specific areas and it may not be in their interest to be in all areas. For example, the notion that locking up a person’s user data as being a competitive advantage is silly, if you can offer value through knowledge application.

To put the above in context, MySpace’s recent data availability announcement is a step into the direction of DataPortability (something that will take until the end of this year to finalise at minimum), but whilst Google and Facebook race to offer similar services to ‘lock’ their data, they are in fact missing the point. The value of MySpace for example is the community, and they get value in accessing data and information from as many diverse places as possible to apply that in a unique way. Because they think locking in the data is what determines their business strategy, it forces them to compete in the data storage market – and that is something I would not want to be in given the ability for it to be commoditised, and the massive compliance demands with government and user expectations with their rights. As highlighted by Nitin , data redundancy is a big issue so battling in the storage market puts you at risk if you are solely relying on it as your source for information and knowledge.

As always, I write my blog posts to extend on my thoughts. I’d love feedback and people to challenge the assumptions I’ve made, because I think this can be a very valuable tool in how we view businesses on the web.

Update 1 June 2008: Tim Bull made a video of this posting, which does a better job explaining the concepts presented above