Recently, I was asked to suggest a business model for a research and education center. Some organizations aimed to work together in the field of innovation and regional knowledge sharing. Aim is to make the center sustainable in the sense of Yunus et al. (2010). They describe Social Businesses as an organization which aims to earn enough to renew the invested capital combined with social profit maximization: At the same time as trying to achieve their social objective, social businesses need to recover their full costs so they can be self-sustainable.
Already several earning models of the kind Rappa describes at his website were discussed, however, a business model involves more than only an earning potential. So starting out with the assumption that in research each question is unique, this defines n=1. The methods of academic research may be more or less modeled in a stage model, each query will need different data bases, different academic specialties and competences.
The same applies for education. Taking aside learning styles and other contextual factors, the group of intended learners will have specific work and practice related needs.
This suggest that at the input side r=g, a network organization is needed to meet the demand of the customers. The business model has to take the r=1-n=g philosophy of Prahalad (and others) into account. Central questions are
- how the network organization can attracted the necessary resources to organize the activities needed to fulfill the unique demands of the customers?
- How to organize the earning model to make the center self-sustainable as a social business.
Education and research as a network organization
Note that in a network organization there are two sets of key resources and key activities as mentioned in the Osterwalder-Pigneur business canvas: firstly the resources and activities aimed at fulfilling the needs of the customer, the realization of the value offering. These factors have to be found in the relationships which make up the network of the organization. The key resources and activities within the organization have to do with setting the conditions necessary to activate the former external resources and activities. The internal resources and activities as relationship management, ‘the black books’ and communication and organizational skills are the core competences of the network organization. Money is often an important persuading factor, but reputation, knowledge sharing and strategic issues can also convince organizations to work together in a network setting.
A business model for an education and research network organization
The assumption is that the main customers of such a model are other organizations, having specific research questions, wanting to school their employees. The aim of the network organization is to match demand by organizing its partners into a relevant supply.
The actual business model is inspired by a model some colleagues of mine had developed some years ago for a HEI. It consists of different layers, each aimed at a specific audience, but building on each other.
The major difference between the layers is its amount of openness and the facilities offered. The first layer consists of free information, free courses, OER and research rapports. This layer offers free products and services for interested parties. The only restriction is that one has to register with an real email-address. There are several potential sources of income in such a case:
- Selling marketing space to third parties
- Internal subsidies because of the marketing of other products and services
- External subsidies because of the dissemination of knowledge
- Analyzes and sales of data on potential customers; email addresses ect.
In terms of Rappa’s earning models this is a combination of the advertising and the infomediary model. In Rappa’s taxonomy, the Freemium model of Anderson (giving away something for free; earning an income by offering additional services or products) is part of the advertising model.
In the second layer (registered) visitors find a supply of standardized service and products, for example courses based on existing courses of the participants, workshops and alike. Interested parties can either participate or buy products on a pay-as-you-go base, or –in the case of changing offerings- take a subscription. The utility model assumes the first case, whereas the subscription model differs from the description here as they assume the subscriber also to be a member of the network.
Here, I would label the participants of the last two layers as members. Members of the third layer become part of the community in the sense that they can freely use courses and existing research. Furthermore, they can participate in discussions and influence the direction of new research and the educational course of the center. This level can be compared with a regular student at a HEI, who has pays a yearly fee and is during that year free to use all the facilities and courses at the institute.
Of course, for specific studies or custom made courses and other on-demand the subscribing member has to pay an additional fee. The fourth layer consists of the full participants, the suppliers of services and products supplied in the three other layers. New full participants should pay a fee reimbursing the others for the initial investment costs, getting the right to promote and sell their own products and services within the center.
|Open Education – free (registered) entry– Open Access|
|Courses – pay as you go – Studies|
|Programs and custom made courses – community I – Original research|
|(New) Producers – community II – Founding fathers|
Overall, such a center will act as a broker between the participating organizations and individuals or organizations seeking the products and services on offer. In the brokerage model, income is earned by charging a commission or a fee either based on actual transactions or as part of a general agreement. Yet, at each level data is generated which could be used to create value for (potential) customers and partners, again creating income. Another additional source of income could be regional and national subsidies as governments often stimulate geographical collaboration.
Changes are that an actual implementation of such a model will require some adjustments, for example the privacy regulations with respect to adjustments to the gathering and usage of data are strict; in a world of ever falling government budgets, subsidies may be small or non-existent.
Still, a business model which generates income through its communities can afford to sustain Open Education and Open Access (research), which in itself will not be sustainable.
It would, therefore, be interesting to see if an institute or center build on these principles would be self-sustainable in the sense of Yunus et al (2010), combining a social goal (Open Education, Open Access), while at the same time covering the full costs.
Yunus, M., Moingeon, B., & Lehman‐Ortega, L. (2010). Building social business models: lessons from the Grameen experience, Long Range Planning, 43, 308‐325
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