Musing on organisations and platforms

Some time ago I wrote a few posts about organisations and platforms, and considered the possibility of each firm becoming an open multisided platform. You can find the posts here, here and here.

Over the last month or so, I’ve landed up spending far too much time at airports, partially as a result of a complex travel schedule, primarily as a result of flight delays for a plethora of reasons. And it got me thinking.

Maybe open multisided software platforms are like airports. Maybe soon many organisations will look like airports as well. I know, I know, you think I should keep taking the tablets, but please bear with me. Just for a little while.

An airport is a marketplace, open and multisided. Anyone can go to an airport, embarking and disembarking passengers make up a small percentage of overall traffic. Some people pass through there. Some people work there. Some people, apparently, stay there.

There’s a primary purpose to the community: getting on or off planes that take you places.

And there’s a whole pile of activities that relate to the primary purpose:  Ticketing, Check-in, Security, Departure Lounges, Arrivals Lounges, Baggage Halls.

There’s also a set of activities that deal with special cases of the primary purpose: Immigration, Emigration, Tax Clearance. Health checks for would-be immigrants, sometimes even holding cells for illegal immigrants.

And there’s the usual feedback loop. Complaints counters. Lost Luggage counters.  Whatever.

Since there’s a lot of through traffic, there are a bunch of other things that happen, overlaps with other marketplaces. Airports are shopping malls. They have churches and other places of worship. They have restaurants and food halls, bookshops and nail salons, shoe-shine seats and children’s amusements, ice-cream parlours and pizza palaces. Airports sometimes have luxury shopping arcades with all those brands, the ones that would make great plays at Scrabble. [How come Paul Smith is the only designer I can think of with a “normal” name?].

People come to get and spend and lay waste their powers. So they need banks and cambios and wechsels and whatever, they need toilets and loos and restrooms and whatever. They need places to sit and stand and walk around and amble aimlessly, even to sleep. Sometimes, when flights get delayed, the borders between these places gets a bit fuzzy.

And to make all this happen, people actually work in airports as well. They too need places to call their own, places where they can change out of civvies and into clothes that say to everyone else “I work here”.

Everywhere there is motion. Of a sort. Queues form for no apparent reason, then disappear for similarly invisible ones.

In the old days, airports were fairly basic, there was no concept of customer or service or time or quality. In the old days, airports were about the primary purpose and nothing else. In fact you couldn’t even go there unless you were a departing or arriving passenger.  In the old days, airports tended to be locked-in components of an airline’s attempts at vertical integration, a classic monopoly play. In the old days, information about the status of flights and passengers and baggage was sparse and unreliable.

Now the monopolies are beginning to break, and customers are coming to the fore again. Conversing with each other. Occasionally transacting business as well. Fluid and active. Global and open and realtime.

Over time, a bunch of standards evolved to make this simpler and easier. I guess I’m an idealist: I think that airport gates are likely to be similar in dimensions, even if they get manufactured by a host of companies. That escalators and lifts are similar to some extent, even if they compete via a complex array of prices and bundles.  That passport sizes have converged over time. That Starbucks looks the same everywhere, as does Hermes or Harrods. That a loo is a loo is a loo.

Some airports are niche, serving a specific and narrow market. Some are satellites. Some are regional. Some are global. Some are domestic. Some are international. Some are everything and nothing.

You can go from airport to airport via coach or train or car, not just plane. You can do this privately or using public services. Airports collaborate and compete with each other.

Some things you can do online and in advance, some things you must do online, some things you can only do physically.

There’s a lot we can learn from airports, things we can apply to software and to organisation.

Open. Multisided.

22 thoughts on “Musing on organisations and platforms”

  1. Not to mention real and present terrorist threat similar to the virus threats prevalent in software platforms.

    In India, while there is huge debate over contracts for upgrading the metro airports, lucrative cargo airports are getting ready in strategic yet unheard places. Just like software startups in stealth mode!

  2. Having spent many hours in airports too, I support the views that there is a comparison between airports and organisations.

    I have favourite places in 3 or 4 frequently used airports where I can access power for my laptop or a Wifi hub.

    Currently organisations are constrained by physical limitations (like networking and power) and remain inflexible, especially when configured into departures (finance) and arrivals (marketing) etc.

    Understanding the dynamics of the physical layout, technological and human interactions is essential today as we confuse each other by outsourcing various components. On short haul flights baggage reclaim and immigration accounts for a lot of transaction time even though the carrier has upgraded their bandwidth (aircraft).

    In the I.T. World we have traditionally been constrained by punch cards (yes, I am that old), magnetic tapes and printers. The last category is a millstone in areas like office design as printers and paper will not go away…..this is despite the ticketless airline. All they have done is moved the printing to your house!

  3. Is it significant that the pricing model for the primary purpose of the market — renting seats on airplanes — is such that this transaction almost never takes place in the airport?

    The entire ecosystem you describe so vividly has grown up around a transaction that almost always happens elsewhere, ahead of time. If you’re actually buying a ticket there at the counter, you know you’re in serious trouble.

    I suppose the market grows up NOT in support of the actual ticket transaction, but because there is a lot of demand from idle customers waiting on the fulfillment of that transaction. Maybe because there is excess attention floating around, and as someone else commented here there (and the authors of Blur argued a few years back) attention is the new constraining resource.

    Lots to chew on here.

  4. Bill, you can see where I was headed. Markets are conversations. Relationship before conversation before transaction. The because effect in open multisided marketplaces. You make money because of things rather than with things.attention is important, but intention is even more important.

    I like the airport model because it is vibrant and alive and chaotic. What happens when the middle eastern souk enters the twenty first century.

  5. JP, does it not strike you as at least a little bit ironic that all the vibrancy and life of a contemporary airport has absolutely nothing to do with its RAISON D’ETRE (as a staging area for getting from here to there)? Note that I did not include chaos in that last sentence, yet the greatest chaos often arises around the fulfillment (or lack thereof) of that RAISON D’ETRE! On the other hand all the vibrancy and life (and probably chaos) of a souk are all intimately bound to its RAISON D’ETRE (speaking not as an observing tourist but as one who has engaged in transactions there)! I fear that the surface features of THE TERMINAL may have seduced you to a point where you missed out on the deep structure!

  6. Stephen, I don’t agree.

    I don’t particularly care about the raison d’etre of the place. I care about the raison d’etre of the people who go there.

    The raison d’etre of a coffee shop may be to sell coffee, in your analysis. But people go to coffee shops to meet, to converse, to argue and expound. Sometimes they even have coffee. I for one have green tea or camomile.

    Coffee houses and tea rooms have served as incubation chambers for banking and insurance, amongst many other things. Who knows, maybe Google and iPod and Facebook were dreamt up at airports.

    People go to all these places for a variety of reasons.

    My views about airports and platforms and software and marketplaces are not simply as a result of watching one film. I spend a lot of time in each of these spaces. Usually to meet people and relate and converse. Occasionally even transact.

  7. I have probably been contaminated by too much exposure to Michael Rothschild and Bionomics in the early ’90’s, but to me these are not market places so much as ecosystems.

    An ecosystem doesn’t even HAVE a raison d’etre, unless you want to get much more deeply philosophical and metaphysical than I have space for in this comment.

    There’s just a basic source of energy and then a whole shifting diverse set of ecological niches where different players eke out a living. Or even thrive, evolve, and move across niches.

    But I”m not sure marketplace and ecosystem are really mutually exclusive metaphors (if metaphors ever are mutually exclusive).

    I do think that attention is the basic energy source driving the complex system at the airport, and the various vendors and advertisers are as clever and persistent as plants trying to maximize the amount of sun exposure they get. The pool of available attention is “merely” a by-product of the physical world limitations that require us to queue up our physical bodies and wait for mechanical contraptions to whisk us from place to place.

  8. As an aside, the London Stock Exchange came out of trading activities in a few coffee houses. Also Lloyds of London originated in Edward’s Lloyds Coffee House.

  9. JP, I would question the soundness of the analogy between the coffee house and the airport. As to RAISON D’ETRE, I would argue that most of the people who go to an airport go there for the RAISON D’ETRE of the airport (the staging area for getting from here to there). Like John Seely Brown, I appreciate the value of attending to the peripheral, but not to the extent that we lose touch with the focal! I fear that this may be the flaw in your reasoning.

  10. Maybe you’re right. I will continue to mull over it. But consider this. I lived in Calcutta for many years, in fact for half my life. I went to the airport regularly. Why? Well, as a kid, because I wanted to see planes take off or land; as a youth and adolescent, to see friends or relatives off or to receive them; as a young adult, to imbibe alcoholic beverages at a time when no other bars were open, the airport had the only 24 hour bar. Later, when I came to the UK, I have gone to the airport to cash cheques and to exchange long-forgotten holiday currency remains.

    If you look at what DumDum airport used to be, I would suggest that most people who went there DIDN’T go there for the raison d’etre you suggest.

    Many times, I went along just for the ride, to spend time with friends, to chat and chill out. Sometimes I went to the airport in order to enjoy the drive/

  11. JP, I certainly accept your autobiographical data points. Indeed, during the four years I lived in Singapore, elderly Chinese men who used to gather at the outside coffee house tables began to move over to Changi Airport, where the drinks were just as good and the girl-watching was a lot better! (Apologies to those who feel strongly about political correctness, but this observation was reflected so often in the general media that it became a new thread in the fabric of daily life in Singapore!) Also, my only Master’s student would take her infant kids to Changi to watch planes, just as you did!

    My real point, however, is that (without deep-ending on intimations of a plan, either divine or evolutionary) there is a reason why we have separate visual processing for the focal and peripheral, respectively. I take this to mean that there are good reasons for sorting out the focal and peripheral as part of our being-in-the-world. More often than not, it is better to leave the peripheral on the periphery, no matter how enticing it may be!

    (Note, as an incidental (peripheral?) remark, that vision is our only perceptual sense that separates the focal from the peripheral.)

  12. Great blog; adds a richer dimension to the discussion of platforms as cooperating, competing and interconnecting. Gives me an idea to map the dimensions of different types of platforms for comparisons so that we can delve into the nuances.

  13. JP, it occurred to me that my comment to John Dodds about the shift from a physics-based paradigm to a biology-based paradigm is also applicable to how we view the constructs under consideration in this discussion, such as software platforms and markets:

    As I mentioned in the aforementioned comment, James Grier Miller was exploring the idea of an organization as a “living system” back in 1978. Those with a sense of history should also note that, in his chapter on “The Organization,” Miller cited the pioneering work of Burns and Stalker (published in 1961), in which they proposed the opposition of “mechanistic” and “organic” systems. (Personally, I find the Burns-Stalker conception of “organic” to be naively romantic; but it dates from a time when “normal science” was still trying to reduce biology to physics. The REAL opposition in the Burns-Stalker model, however, is between totalitarian and democratic governance; and we have already had numerous exchanges over models of governance!) The bottom line is that there seem to be lots of signs encouraging us to think more about the biology-based paradigm, whether or not Miller is the best source introduction to that paradigm.

  14. Great stuff, Stephen. Something that looks very promising at this stage, something I can get my teeth into while travelling…. I’m always looking for things to read on longhaul flights, and this looks very good. Miller here I come. Thanks

  15. JP, I have to admire you for carrying a 1000-page book while traveling! At the very least it means that I am not alone in that particular habit, having taken my copy of THE SOCIOLOGY OF PHILOSOPHIES (1098+xxi pages) on a business trip that covered Tokyo, Singapore, and Sydney! I am not sure how far you want to get into the introductory material before you start commenting, but I am definitely looking forward to your thoughts!

  16. Yes but if only you could opt out of all the ‘other stuff’…and just arrive at the airport, get on the plane, land, and leave. It’s the main thing that makes travelling on private jets so compelling (once you get over the glamour of leather and hardwood veneers…)

  17. Sean, you have reawakened my longing for making cryogenic technology viable at the human scale! Even private jet travel is (needlessly?) time-consuming and leaves you with jet lag if the distance is too great. I would rather have a company like FedEx freeze me, move me like any other (fragile?) package, and thaw me out at my destination at a time consistent with my pre-frozen biological clock!

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