Competitive advantage

One of the questions we’ve been asked most often is why established ‘competitors’ couldn’t just appropriate our idea. The short answer is that they could – we haven’t invented any proprietary technology – but we don’t think they will, at least not quite yet.

This question is part of any Need-Approach-Benefits-Competition (NABC) analysis. Why hasn’t this idea hasn’t been done before? More importantly, why couldn’t the competition respond? And most pointedly, what is the one ‘killer advantage’ that no-one else will be able to compete with? Of course this assumes that this isn’t just a bad idea that no-one in their right mind would want to appropriate, but to be fair that’s not the reaction we’ve been getting so far, so let’s proceed on the basis that we’re onto something.

First though, a recap. We’re developing a new think tank where the research and policy analysis conducted by the people who use and provide public services in an online social network. This idea derives from three (related) thoughts:

  • Think tanks could be meaningful vehicles for public involvement in public policy – in an age of mass participation, the notion of closed, hierarchically organised expertise seems increasingly outdated;
  • Think tanks could be open and transparent – from how they are funded and who sets their agenda, to how they conduct research and how they derive their findings and recommendations, and this could improve their work and enhance their impact;
  • The internet and social networks in particular could help to achieve both of these things.

Disruptive innovations that prove successful often seem obvious in retrospect, so why hasn’t this been done before? In an age of social networks, we’d be the first to admit that it’s a pretty obvious idea. but the reasons that established businesses don’t develop or respond effectively to disruptive innovations often come down to money, skills or awareness, so let’s consider these in turn.

Disruptive innovation is obviously disruptive for established businesses. It costs money to shift from one way of doing things to another. Effectively we’d be asking traditional think tanks to make a fundamental shift from offline to online. Then again, social media and social networks are pretty cheap to experiment with, and this is a transition that a think tank could make over time – growing an online community while they gradually reduce their reliance on traditional (and expensive) offline ways of working, and introducing their existing customers slowly to the new approach as appropriate.

What about skills? There’s no doubt it would be a big shift in this respect as well, from ‘thought leadership’ and managing projects, to facilitating the thoughts of others and moderating communities. It’s not only a different skill set, it’s a different mindset – and probably therefore a different group of people. But again, the transition could happen over time. A think tank could establish a separate online operation, staffed with different people, and see how this develops (creating new ‘greenfield’ business units has often been critical to the success of disruptive innovations by established companies, because it gives the new venture the required autonomy to do things differently from the main business).

There could be a problem with branding here, but again establishing a separate greenfield operation could get round this. Some of the most well-known think tanks have quite strong brands (at least in the Westminster bubble), but this could also prove a barrier if they tried to set up a new, more open, more diverse online community. For example, the Institute of Economic Affairs has a strong brand but it’s for liberal economic thought, so it would most likely repel as many people as it would attract; equally IPPR or Demos might appeal to some audiences but not others. Less political (partisan) think tanks wouldn’t have this problem, but then again they don’t have very prominent brands to begin with, so this might not be an advantage overall. A small number of UK think tanks, such as the Institute for Fiscal Studies and The King’s Fund, have both strong brands and non-partisan credibility but they are also sector-specific, which obviously narrows the breadth of their appeal if they wanted to develop a ‘full-spectrum’ online think tank that encompassed many sectors and issues (which is what we’re trying to do here). Creating a new brand, but one which is related in some way to an existing brand, might be the way to go (the Center for American Progress has in effect done this with the ThinkProgress comment site, although this reinforces the impression of partisanship rather than reducing it).

So it seems that established think tanks could do what we’re attempting to do. Why then don’t we think they will, at least for a while? The reason is that most think tanks aren’t driven to want to serve the market better (which is what disruptive innovations are designed to do), rather they’re focused on finding better ways to promote their own viewpoints, which is not the same thing. An open, public, online community might not help them do that; because it couldn’t be directed easily it might even disrupt their mission. Our ‘killer advantage’ might turn out to be think tanks themselves.