Ignoring the ROI of Openness
I am back from Berlin, where we were discussing at the google collaboratory how to evaluate the impact of open government. While the excitement about enterprise 2.0, government 2.0, and open government has been building, critical voices in organizations have questioned the return on investment (ROI) of such projects. 2.0 projects are often still looked upon as insignificant or superfluous. The now classical response to this has been to allude to the ROI of successful projects:
Consider Apps for Democracy, which yielded 47 iPhone, Facebook and Web apps in 30 days – a $2.3 million value that only cost the city $50,000. It’s hard to dismiss an estimated 4,000 percent return on investment in one month’s time. The contest’s success, powered by iStrategyLabs, spurred Apps for Democracy “Community Edition” and spinoffs in other cities.
This approach of utilizing the ROI framework to defend 2.0-strategies, however, has several flaws, (a) it might have been a lucky shot, (b) it might not be sustainable, (c) contests might not focus on what citizens need (d) any impact below a certain threshold, let’s say $ 1 billion does not carry weight in big governmental or corporate organizations, but (e) most importantly, ROI is the wrong tool to evaluate success of enterprise/government 2.0 projects, because most of the value is accrued with the consumer not the producer of the value.
If we look at the most successful 2.0 projects of the last years, we see a pattern, where the ROI is not a relevant indicator to evaluate the project. One of the first big 2.0 projects, Wikipedia, destroyed the encyclopedia industry, but is not generating major revenues. Couchsurfing and sites like http://airbnb.com/ or http://www.crashpadder.com/ are taking big bites out of the Hotel industry without generating equivalent returns. Open Street Map is having a huge impact on the mapping industry, one of the most profitable industries of the last years. Dynamic ridesharing is creating a secondary mobility infrastructure in most countries, basically competing with our complex integrated public transport systems such as the German Railway, with revenues of more than 10 billion euro in passenger transport per year or shorthaul flights. The combined revenues of the 5 major German ride sharing companies is way less than $ 10 million, but the impact on the lifeworld of their users is dramatic.
There are three lessons to be gleamed from this:
- the impact of 2.0 project are not to be evaluated in ROI, but in consumer-focused metrics (shadow prices, counterfactuals, reduction in average cost, rate of demonetarization, etc.). Ideally, not in monetary terms, because 2.0-strategies aim to de-monetarize.
- for corporations, 2.0 strategies go way beyond “normal” cannibalization strategies. They focus on the de-monetarization of industries. Therefore, as strategists, we need to ask, how can we generate a revenue flow that does not inhibit adoption, but sustains the effort.There is no choice, either we do it, or someone else will do it.
- For public value strategists that are not entrenched in existing practices this is a dream-come-true. You can now recreate a multi-billion-dollar infrastructure (the German railway system) with a web-page.
If this does not sound like a fun scenario from the perspective of an existing organization (be that governmental or private), be assured that there is nothing you can do against it. The two mega-trends driving the development are the dematerialization of the economy which has been going on for over one hundred years (the weight of the US economy per dollar of GDP has been decreasing more than 100-fold in the last century) and the implosion of transaction costs of organization through digitization and the rise of n-to-n (peer-to-peer) media are leading to new forms of organization (open value chains) and new products and services that can be digitally provided at basically zero marginal costs.
An analogy of what is happening today can be seen, when we look at the historical institution of medieval knighthood, probably the most expensive and sophisticated approach to individualized fighting and organization of social and cultural life in the history of humanity. In 1386, at the battle of Sempach, a “web-startup” consisting of Swiss peasants defeated the Austrian knights, by pushing them down from their high horses by using long poles. Not very sophisticated, but sufficient to get the job done. Expect more of that today.
When in Berlin, I also had breakfast with Peter Scheufen, the CEO of Skobbler, a smartphone navigation company that was globally the first to utilize Open Street Map in its core navigation product and that is making the navigation industry very nervous. Peter sees his role as a negotiator between the world of the voluntary mappers, software developers that might want to build applications on top of his server offering, and consumers that expect a working navigation product for as close to free as possible, and believes he can build a business model where he can generate a non-intrusive revenue stream for his company. Navigating these waters is not easy, but it can be very rewarding for all of us, who believe we can have a positive impact on this planet and generate revenues, by figuring out how to generate revenue streams that do not disturb the value chain. So, ignore the ROI-issue and focus on the big picture of (public) value creation!