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Introduction to Business Model

February 4, 2012 1 comment

Before you go further in reading this document I want you to pause and answer one question.  How do you define Business Model?  If you take the time to create a thoughtful response to that question you will gain more from what I have to say.

The term business model often surfaces when CEOs are reporting on the success (or failure) of their companies.  They use the term in so many ways that it brings doubts as to just how well they understand what a business model actually is.  The next time you hear the phrase being used try to understand exactly what they are talking about.  See if you can conceptualize their description.

I have found it difficult to do that because when many leaders are saying Business Model what they are referring to are vague images in their minds of what their business should look and act like.  It is more of a transient vision statement than an actual model.  Unfortunately for them, and those that work for them, that apparition exists only in their minds.  And to make matters worse that ghostly image is unintentionally evolving.  What was there three months ago has morphed into something new without anyone else knowing, even though there are projects and initiatives underway to try and capture the earlier vision.  If the model is not visible how does one go about building it?  How can a group of executives ‘know’ they have a common understanding of the desired model if none of them are looking at a model?

There was one company that had three executives and a strategy consultant spend nine months developing a strategic plan.  The management team needed to have a plan in place in order to meet certain goals.  At the end of the process the group had settled on a particular corporate direction and some of the key strategies needed to make their vision come true.  The most important strategy centered on the company having a ‘World Class Supply Chain Management System’ put into place.  The CEO upon being asked to clarify what that would look like stated that the company would spend exactly what it took to give the customer exactly what it wanted.  If the company spent one dime more than was necessary then that would be a problem.  The CFO was asked the same question and he responded that being a world class Supply Chain management meant studying Wal-Mart, P&G and Dell and developing something superior to their processes.

Compare those responses and ask yourself if you think both of those people had the same vision in mind.  It is obvious that they didn’t.  Here were two people who had spent considerable time together to co-develop the strategy, could repeat the words of the strategy but weren’t on the same page when it came to how to execute that strategy.  That is the danger of language – assuming we all mean the same thing when words are being used.

The term Business Model can also be found in the world of academia.  In undergraduate business studies but especially in MBA programs the phrase is often used.  Case studies of companies typically refer to their business models.  The term is used hundreds if not thousands of times in the course of obtaining an advanced degree.

Since the phrase is so widely used in business and universities wouldn’t it be reasonable to expect a common definition?  From seeing that term used in many different ways I came to the conclusion that people don’t share a common understanding of what constitutes a Business Model.

To verify my suspicions I conducted two surveys.  One was with a group of business people and university students and the other was with a graduate business class.  The audience in both cases was there to listen to a presentation I was going to make on the concept of Business Models.  Prior to taking the surveys I asked those present to raise their hand if they were familiar with the term Business Model.  Every person showed me they ‘knew’ what the term meant.  My next instruction was for them to write down their definition on the piece of paper I had given them without conferring with anyone else.  I was not looking for a homogenized version of the term but wanted to hear from each person individually.  I also asked them not to include their name.  What they had to say was more important than who said it.

I collected and recorded all the responses and now have dozens of different Business Model definitions.  Allow me to share the beginning of just seven of them.

  1. A business model is a process ….
  2. Business model is the technical design
  3. A business model is a description ….
  4. Rules and goals of the business as a whole.
  5. The method of running the business …
  6. A plan …..
  7. The strategies needed ….

As you can see from just these definitions my hypothesis was confirmed.  Every one of those definitions is very different than the others.  A description is certainly different than a process.  Rules and strategies bear no resemblance to each other or any of the other descriptions in that list.  There is a vast array of ideas being applied to the concept of Business Model.

The question begs to be asked:  “How can business leaders and students attending the same university, studying the same field, have such a large array of definitions for one of the most basic business concepts?”

I think I know why.

It is not unlike the parable of the seven blind men and the elephant shown below.  None of the seven men had ever experienced an elephant before and therefore had no basis or context for this magnificent creature.  Each blind man was asked to describe an elephant.  The first one touched the tail and described it as a rope.  The second one touched a leg and said it was like a tree.  One touched a tusk, another an ear, another the back,…  While each man’s description of the elephant was technically correct if a person took only that one perspective s/he could not know what an elephant looks like.

In order for those men, or anyone else for that matter, to know what an elephant looks like they need to know all of its parts and their relationship to each other.  By viewing each part individually it is not possible to know what any complex entity looks like.

A business is a very complex entity.  Now mentally substitute the elephant in the story about with the idea of a Business Model.  Scan the list of seven different definitions from my surveys and understand that each of those definitions is just one part of the business model.

I have come to understand that the reason why I receive so many different definitions for a Business Model is because it isn’t just one thing.  Plans, rules and regulations, processes, strategies, design,.. are all different parts of the Business Model elephant.  Each piece doesn’t capture the totality of the entity but it does provide one glimpse.

That doesn’t mean a definition for a business model can’t be created to describe a business model.  I have spent many years in this area and have developed a definition that works well.  It aligns perfectly with the system I have created to make the Business Model Design a reality.

A Business Model is:

An aligned design of the products, processes, people and support functions that enables a business to achieve sustained performance.

My definition encompasses all of the ‘parts of the business model elephant’ listed by the seven responses from my surveys.  Some of the survey responses are easily seen in the definition while others exist at a lower level.  My goal was to use the fewest words to capture the totality of a business model and I believe I have succeeded.  If there are aspects you believe to be missing, such as strategies and goals, trust that they are accommodated in the process but not readily apparent in the definition.

I am a much more visual person than auditory.  When I was in a senior executive role my staff would come to me with an idea and I would always say “Show me the picture”.  Without the picture I didn’t know if we were on the same page.  We unknowingly use the same terms when we are referring to different ideas.  Just go back to the seven responses listed above for proof.

With that in mind I have created a visual document to go with the above definition for Business Model.  It is my “Show me the picture” of a Business Model but unfortunately I am unable to import it into this document.  If you were able to look at it you would see that the diagram illustrates how the business entity exists within the competitive environment and then how each of the components of the business exists within the overall context of the business entity.  Context is King and that understanding is embedded into this approach.

The model works regardless of whether the company provides a product or service.  And while I use the term ‘business’ I am not referring to only for-profit companies.  It is any entity that provides a product or service for someone else.  Corporations, single business units, agencies, organizations and even departments can all use this diagram to show its inner workings.

The picture is a high-level view.  Each of the parts in the diagram can be decomposed to help the reader better understand the context of what it is they are viewing.

When you study my Business Model Design take notice of the red arrows throughout the diagram.  Those arrows indicate a flow.  That flow actually represents a progression or sequence which in turn creates dependencies resulting in this document taking on a more three-dimensional perspective.

Look to SlideShare for a PowerPoint by me on this topic.  There I wll be able to share my business model design diagram or canvas.

Before closing there is a concept I wish to share with you.  “The environment determines the relevance of a design”.  This is critical to understand because it can and should be applied in every aspect of a person’s life.  My definition of Business Model ends with the words ‘sustained performance’.  The only way to achieve that level of performance in anything we do is to constantly adapt to a changing environment.  That is true for products, processes and businesses alike.  As the expectations change so must the corresponding designs.

There is an entire system that goes with this diagram.  And when applied it creates a laser-like focus on what a business needs to do in order to achieve its goals.  That brings us full circle to the idea that “It’s all about Performance”.

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