Since the advent of the World Wide Web, the landscape of B2C and B2B commerce has undergone radical transformation. Successive waves of information and communications technology (ICT), such as smartphones and the cloud, have washed over almost all sectors and segments of the economy, leading to entirely new ways of structuring business processes, even business models.
Over the past 10 years, the digital platform has become one of the most significant developments of these rolling waves of new technology. Prominent among the attributes of a digital platform is its regulated openness and ability to connect different users, systems and service providers, into a mutually beneficial value-creation network (also known as an ecosystem).
In the contingent workforce management world, most of the technology solutions (ATS, job boards, VMS) have legacies going back to the year 2000 or earlier. But more recently, digital platforms have begun to gradually emerge in various parts of the contingent workforce supply chain, as new solution technology providers enter the space and as some established technology solution providers invest in upgrading their underlying technology.
Platforms: What are they?
The term platform has, in past years, become a bit of a buzzword. But, as used here, a digital platform can be described as a configuration of technologies designed to enable value-added interactions and transactions among different groups of users, technology solutions and service providers. Usually added to this list are third-party software developers who, relying upon the platform’s APIs, can independently develop integrations with other systems or create new technology solutions (including mobile apps) that functionally complement and add value to the platform.
A platform’s “multi-sidedness” (the many-to-many enablement of value-added interactions and transactions among different groups of users, other solutions, etc.) is what essentially distinguishes a digital platform from a typical enterprise SaaS solution.
For our purposes, as noted above, a digital platform is a configuration of technology. Today, the state-of-the-art of digital platform technology is the cloud stack (IaaS, SaaS, PaaS and iPaaS) with an open service-oriented-architecture that includes APIs. Digital platforms are typically engineered to scale up, support massive data and weave analytics and algorithmic processing through the software. But because of the openness of platforms to ecosystem partners and software developers via APIs, the architecture must address a whole new set of security requirements, which real platforms handle through identity authentication, access level authorization, federated security and more.
Platforms and Ecosystems: What are They?
However, like any other technology solution, a digital platform is only as valuable as what it can do for the platform users and complementors — and the “platform owner.” Accordingly, a digital platform, by definition, supports processes that enable value-creating interactions and economic and financial transactions amongst all the platform users and complementors. It is ultimately a value-creating engine that allocates incremental value throughout the network of platform participants.
This network of users and complementors are what constitute an ecosystem, which Spend Matters has defined elsewhere as “a community of platform users, services providers, solution providers, software developers and even other systems/platforms that are digitally connected across a given platform for the purpose creating new value for all of the members of the community.
For example, Airbnb has attracted an ecosystem of numerous complementary service providers for cleaning, key exchange and more, though it hasn’t made a “public” API available (but may). Nonetheless, some ecosystem partners, like Guesty and Button, have managed to achieve limited integration under partnership agreements. Button is an ecosystem partner that provides app development/integration services under partnerships with Airbnb, Uber, OpenTable and Ticketmaster. Interestingly, Button might very well have its sights on becoming a platform in its own right, with those other platforms effectively becoming a part of its own ecosystem.
What should be clear by now is that platforms and ecosystems bring whole new ways of doing business, serving customers and engaging with partners — and can do so powerfully in many business segments.
Platforms and Ecosystems in the Contingent Workforce Space
For many years now, digital platforms have been emerging as a part of the contingent workforce space, but outside of existing enterprise workforce supply chains and programs like Elance, oDesk and Guru.com. In addition, platform ecosystem development has not been robust.
However, in the past few years, we have begun to see signs of platforms, with emerging ecosystems, that are developing adjacent to and in existing enterprise workforce supply chains.
Some examples include so-called freelancer management systems (FMS), private talent pools, freelancer marketplace enterprise extensions and other types of platforms that are developing ecosystem integrations with third-party service providers, offering complementary services like payment, certification, background checks, classification and compliance, along with talent sourcing, engagement, and onboarding. For certain use cases, there have been integrations with different technology solutions, such as ERPs, content management systems, software bug tracking and version control systems. It is also clear that a number of well-established, major vendor management system (VMS) solutions are pursuing product road maps that could transform a transactional, closed enterprise SaaS into a digital platform — though the investment in time and resources is significant, such that VMS solutions are in different stages of development and proceeding at different speeds.
One thing is clear, however: Platforms and ecosystems are emerging in the contingent workforce space, and their presence and impact will become increasing apparent and material.
As they have in other industries and business segments, platforms and their ecosystems will have significant — sometimes even disruptive — impacts across the contingent workforce space. They hold the promise of new talent sources, new ways of applying talent and doing so with greater speed, less cost and higher quality. But what platforms will emerge and form dominant ecosystems remains to be seen.
While some of the new-entrant solution players have achieved success based on their platform architectures, some VMS players may also be highly successful, owing to their favorable enterprise gateway positions. To be successful, a VMS will at least require substantial investment and time to move from a narrowly specialized enterprise software solution to a real digital platform (as outlined above), capable of establishing a value-creating ecosystem.
For enterprise buyers, it will be important to understand which VMSs are achieving real platform status, by looking carefully at their current architecture/technology and also by observing the extent to which they are forming functional ecosystems that will deliver high net value to enterprises. IQN may be the best example of a VMS with clear and active ecosystem strategy.
Separating authentic platforms from usurpers to the throne will be an important requirement for those enterprises that intend to leverage platforms to serve customers better and establish competitive advantage.