How to elevate your platform thinking – the role of competence platforms and Devil’s Advocates in harnessing serendipity

Platform thinking is gaining momentum and for a good reason. It has disrupted many industries already and it will re-shape our business ecosystem thinking in an ever increasing speed. The consequences of this evolution process will be huge and therefore it’s fundamental for us as individuals and a society to adapt to these changes, the sooner the better.

The first conceptual definition of platforms, which I noticed was by John Hagel, John Seely Brown and Lang Davison in their brilliant book “The Power of Pull” (2010). They introduced the notion ‘pull platforms’. The authors defined the new phenomenon as following:

“Pull platform is used metaphorically to describe frameworks for orchestrating a set of resources that can be configured quickly and easily to serve a broad range of needs”.

With a wide set of case examples the authors were able to explain already few years ago the vital disruptive benefits of platform thinking. They also predicted with amazing accuracy the vast implications, which platform thinking is bringing to our business environment.

The fundamental changes that accompany every shift in the industries, which will be transformed by the platform thinking are:

1) new networked markets get created

2) new sources of supply start to emerge

3) new consumption patterns will be developed.

4) new and unique combinations of competences will be created.

The first three factors listed  by Sangeet Paul Choudary are certainly valid when talking about traditional platforms, but I wanted to add also the fourth dimension, which is extremely important from serendipity perspective and the key feature in so called competence platforms.

John Hagel et al have analyzed ‘pull’ driven platform thinking and they conclude, that to exploit the opportunities created by uncertainty, pull platforms help people to come together and innovate in response to unanticipated events, drawing upon a growing array of highly specialized and distributed resources. With this feature a pull platform becomes a real asset for ecosystem builders and in orchestration of distributed freelancer organizations.

In the volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) conditions there will be an increasing number of unexpected and hence unpredictable events and encounters. Pull platforms and the concrete implementation of them – competence platforms – will help us to prepare for the unexpected and act accordingly. The self-organizing characteristics, the agility and the open access are fundamental features of the competence platform. At the same time understanding and supporting these features has become vital for survival in our contemporary business environment. In this respect a well-designed competence platform is offering great support for team building and engagement purposes. A comptenece platform combines cleverly the functionalities of a communication platform and a trading platform and enables collaboration with real impact.

How do the Devil’s Advocates then fit into this thinking, why do we believe that we need them? This is a question, which has subconsciously bothered my mind for a long time. Why almost everywhere the aim is to get like-minded people to form teams and innovation communities? Why are diversity and contradictory elements so often neglected? And finally I found confirmation for my thoughts when I read Gary Klein’s wonderful book ”Seeing What Others Don’t – The Remarkable Ways We Gain Insights”. According to Gary Klein; insight which is the key outcome of any serendipity process will be triggered by (the picture below):

–      Connections

–       Coincidence

–       Curiosity

–       Contradiction

–       Creative Desperation


Actually a contradiction is a very strong catalyst for unexpectedness. And there are many wonderful stories in the history of serendipity about cases where especially contradiction has ignited the final insight for a great discovery. Let’s try to figure out how we can benefit from this approach.

Creating contradiction by purpose is easy, just make sure that there will be enough diversity in your competence platform, and if needed ask some people to play the Devil’s Advocate role. For harnessing serendipity purposes this will certainly be a great catalyst. Putting people in front of unexpected contradictions will sparkle their creativity and lead to insightful results.  The role of Devil’s Advocate will be a real interaction booster in many communities and companies, as long as it’s understood the right way. Contradictory opinions can stimulate the serendipity process in various ways. This is extremely important to understand because innovation communities often are way too homogenous without any contradictions. The ability to tolerate uncertainty and different kind of thinking is the key to fruitful discussions and hence disruptive solutions in any business ecosystem.

The critical success factor in introducing Devil’s Advocate principle to a competence platform is to design the matching algorithm in a way that also people with totally different values and competences are invited to certain swarms, part-ups or whatever they are called in the various emergent services. The alarming trend at the moment, where algorithms tend to mix only people with similar interests and values, is that these algorithms are not at all encoruraging contradictory behavior – vice versa. So, as a platform designer and operator you will be more successful and have better results and greater impact, if you encourage the Devil’s Advocates to join the teams. And please let them do their job properly, it surely will elevate the reputation of your platform to another level.

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