3. Innovating in resources: From ownership to access
One widespread premise in business is that companies compete by owning the assets that matter most to their strategy. Competitive advantage, according to this belief, comes from owning valuable assets and resources, which tend to be scarce and utilized over long time periods, as well as firm and location specific. Thus ownership (rather than, say, leasing) frequently appears to be the best way to ensure exclusive access.
But what if assets are used infrequently or inconsistently? In these cases, digital technology, by increasing transparency and reducing search and transaction costs, is enabling new and better value-creating models of collaborative consumption. As a result, ownership may become an inferior way to access key assets, increasingly replaced by flexible win-win commercial arrangements with partners. On the consumer side, the examples include Peerby, an app that allows neighbors to share tools and other household items that would otherwise sit idle in garages, and Uber, which allows any driver with a qualified vehicle to provide taxi service. House- and room-sharing programs apply the same thinking to underused real estate. In every case, consumers opt to access rather than own these assets.
Big companies are following suit—for example, by reducing sourcing costs through “cradle-to-cradle” approaches that collect and repurpose what they previously considered waste.Instead of buying (and thus owning) the raw materials needed for products, companies access these materials in previously sold products and repurpose them. Similarly, the global sourcing firm Li & Fung limits risk, increases efficiency, and enhances flexibility by using broad networks focused on access to (rather than majority ownership of) suppliers. The software maker Adobe Systems no longer licenses new versions of its products to customers through one-time sales; instead it provides access to them through monthly subscriptions. (For more on Adobe’s transition to its new business model, see “Reborn in the cloud.”)
The move from ownership to access mirrors a more broadly evolving societal mind-set toward open-source models. For example, in 2014 the electric-vehicle company Tesla made all of its intellectual-property patents freely available in an effort to encourage the manufacture of clean vehicles.
These possibilities penetrate deeply into traditional industries. Consider how a big European maritime port embarked on a large-scale land-management program. The industry belief reframed by the port was that large liquid-bulk-load ships valued private access to storage tanks. The underlying assumption was that shipping companies wanted the ability to deliver their bulk loads anytime and therefore required entry to their tanks at close range.
In response to this perceived need, most maritime ports have developed jetties to which they provide individual shipping companies private access—essentially the equivalent of “ownership.” As a result of each company’s varying schedules and traffic, many jetties ended up being mostly unused, but others weren’t sufficient for peak times. Seeing this problem, the port’s management reframed the industry belief by asking if customers cared more about access on demand than exclusivity. The port now intends to help all customers use any jetty to access any fuel tank, by developing a common-carrier pipe connecting them. Just as Peerby in effect shifts a neighborhood’s “business model” by increasing the utilization of underused assets, so the maritime port is making more of underutilized jetties and storage tanks by shifting the business model so that shipping companies pay for access to jetties and storage rather than the exclusive use of them. In the future, this model may evolve into a dynamic multiuser slot-booking system that matches the real-time availability of jetties with demand for liquid-bulk-carrier ships.