Vol. 12, No. 3 (2019). Special Issue on: Working as a platform: Labour needs, activation and representativeness in the era of digital transformation
Introduction: “Everywhere there can be a platform, there will be a platform”
With this sentence reported in the title, the 2018 MIT Platform Strategy Summit celebrates the era of a new dominant paradigm (MIT 2018, 2) that is redefining the organisational and business strategies at global level. The pervasiveness of the platform model is spreading rapidly in post-industrial societies (Degryse 2016). A previous report from MIT (2017) states that 88% of the most profitable businesses surveyed by Fortune almost ten years ago have disappeared, in favour of the new platform companies, mostly concentrated in the USA (75%, and only 3% are European). Also in the Forbes Ranking on the World’s Most Valuable Brands in 2018, the top five positions are held by the Big Fives of the platform economy’s (the so called GAFAM system- Alphabet- Google, Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Microsoft), which replaced in less than ten years companies like Coca Cola, Toyota and General Electric.
But what is a platform?
The concept has existed for at least five hundred years and with a plurality of meanings: firstly, to define a physical structure for carrying out an activity or an operation (for example in a port), or, in a more abstract sense, to define a model or a pattern of ideas (for example a political-programmatic platform). Lastly, the concept in its current meaning refers more to the world of ICT as a set of software or hardware development, often used to build on systems and services for different application domains.
Therefore, the platform is considered a basic system for creating poly-functional and adaptive solutions. From this idea of platform would derive also the idea of platformisation as a modular technological architecture (Baldin and Woodard, 2009), a set of components with “low variety” (19) to which to graft “a set of peripheral components with high variety” (ibidem).This type concept has long been at the basis of the new product development. Therefore, a platform is intended as “the collection of assets that are shared by a set of products” (Robertson and Ulrich 1998, 20). This product design concept was established with the affirmation of the modular factory to guarantee market competitiveness, limiting the costs of customization and reducing the time-to- market (Arcidiacono, 2013). However, the platform thinking (Sawhney, 1998) was not only a mantra of product planning between the 80s and 90s, but a regime of power and the result of a real battle for hegemony based on the definition of a dominant standard in to which to link infinite possibilities of product and service development (Gawer and Cusumano, 2002).
Recently, the idea of platform is related more to the concept of multisided markets (Boudreau and Hagiu 2009; Rochet and Tirole 2006; Evans 2003). This idea is much more oriented and focused on efficiency and competitiveness of the business model, than related to product design. As argued by Simon (2011), platforms are “valuable and powerful ecosystem that quickly and easily scales, morphs, and incorporates new features, users, customers, vendors, and partners” (33). In this sense, the platform aggregates services and re-intermediate or disintermediate the relationship between supply and demand. Therefore, the platform “uses technology to connect people, organizations and resources in an interactive ecosystem where incredible amounts of value can be created and exchanged”. (Chouldry et al., 2016, 4). This business co-developed within the so-called lean start up model coherently with the californian ideology of the 90s (Barbrook and Cameron, 1996; Luise, 2019), that hybridizes participatory ideals, cyber-enthusiasm and economic liberalism. In the last thirty years, the Silicon Valley has shaped the discourse and imaginary on innovation by institutionalizing it around three fundamental actors (start-ups, venture capitals and incubators), around which platform as described mainly as a successful model related also to other mythologies, like the “garage entrepreneurs” or symbolic figure like Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk.
However, platform models can also be varied. Srnicek (2017) identifies five types: advertising platforms (Google, Facebook) that extract information about users, analyze them and then use the product of this process to sell advertising space; cloud platforms (AWS, Salesforce), that have the hardware and software for the functioning of digital companies available on request; industrial platforms (GE’s Predix, Siemens Mind- Sphere) that build the hardware and software necessary to transform traditional manufacturing companies into digital processes based on the Internet of things; product platforms (Spotify, Zipcar) that use other platforms to transform goods into services (good-as-a service model); lean platforms (Uber, Airbnb, BlaBlaCar) that minimize the direct ownership of assets, starting from the workforce, generating new models of service intermediation.
Gawer (2014), trying to combine managerial perspective and product design perspective, talks about platforms as “evolving organizations or meta-organizations” (1240) that federate and coordinate constitutive agents, create value by generating economies of scope entailing them within a modular technological architecture composed of a core and a periphery. Gawer’s proposal highlights the need to look at the platform also as a new productive paradigm (Arcidiacono 2019, -see table 1). In the Taylorist-Fordist production model the company was vertically integrated into a pyramid structure characterized by the “internalization” of all the intermediate processes that led to the construction of the final product. In the flexible model the ability to respond to markets was privileged, increasing job qualification and process specialization which actually encourages the outsourcing of some production phases to a network of suppliers and sub-suppliers. This last model does not operate in a mass market but in a mass of markets, based on the primacy of knowledge/information for the definition of adaptive/responsive strategies to market fluctuations. Marketing passes from mass marketing to relational marketing. The consumer becomes a customer and begins to play an increasingly active role in the production process. In the era of platforms, the mass of markets has been further fragmented and pulverized into a fluid heterogeneity of niches and tribes of interconnected consumers. The market is conditioned by the increasingly consistent importance of information and relational flows, more than of goods (in this sense we could talk about conversational markets). In the platform model, the strategic value passes to consumers, who become the co-authors or prosumers and the capacity of innovate for the company, and also its efficiency, are measured precisely with the possibility of creating a greater expressive and creative possibility for users within the platform that could be transformed into value. Platform companies openly reject the role of producers as well as that of intermediaries, preferring the term of enablers. This distinction allow them to argue against regulation, even if they actually produce, distribute and intermediate work, goods and services. They act as heterarchies or möbius organisation (Stark and Watkins 2018), based on the cooptation (sometimes even aggressive) of assets and resources trying to avoid any permanent alliance or fully formalised constraints. If the dominant production paradigms in the previous industrial revolutions were mainly borrowed by manufacturing (and in particular by the automotive one), in the post-industrial era the outsourcing processes and the growth of relevance of the ICT sector push for a new model extremely lean, re- ticular and diffusive production, coherent with the idea of the “platform”. Platforms act as boundaryless organizations based on a product-as- a-service logic. They are based on a core central system (not exclusively digital) that engages and coordinates diversified production systems and networks of human and non-human co-operators and complementors, professional or amateurial. For this reason, Haydn Shaughnessy (2015) affirms that these plat-firms are coordinators of interactions that therefore require new forms of work, engagement, leadership and integration that cannot be borrowed from previous models. This model transcends the digital economy environment innervating the “old” offline economy, which looks at this as a new benchmark: the automotive sector in this sense is the perfect example, to the point that they do not want to present themselves anymore as simply product producers but as a hub for mobility services. At the same time platforms “as organizations, they can also take on a powerful institutional role, solidifying economies and cultures in their image over time” (Bratton 2015, 41).
Moreover, according to Van Dijck and colleagues (2018), platforms cannot be studied in isolation, apart from social and political structures, because they are all (inter)dependent and they draws their strength from the hegemonic role of the Big Fives, that define a social, and not only technological, infrastructure crucial for any socio- economic activity and social interaction. Platforms represent the most recent example of the neoliberist governamentality in Foucaultianan terms, because it acts as a sociotechnical construction that aims to realize a reasonable approximation to “perfect market”, functioning with relatively homogeneous commodities, low barriers to entry, and the “apparently” open competitive encounter of the buyers and sellers, empowering at the same time knowledge availability (for example, through the algorithmic coding of trust or feedback between transactors) and personalization of price making process (i.e. through dynamic pricing mechanisms). This plural and complex ecosystem is often not easy to assess in terms of implications and impacts, or at least within a single re- search design project. In this sense, the present issue takes the challenge of this complexity through ten articles focused on how platform model impact on organization, work and labour rights.