Jul 12, 2017

Platform Organizations. Supporting Collaboration, Creation & Adaptation

I’ve been following Simone Cicero for a few years now, reading his ideas around the transformation of organizations, open source and collaboration. In the context of We Seek, I’ve especially been paying close attention to his work on the Platform Design Toolkit because of the important learning component presented as one of the “engines” behind platforms. What follows is a bit of a primer or recap of the many articles proposed on the associated publication, Stories of Platform Design. Focusing on the learning aspects found throughout.

What Do You Mean, Platforms?

Platforms are not technologies but scalable collaboration agreements.
The Meaning of the Platform Organization

There are almost as many definitions as there are people writing about the topic but generally, we are talking about companies who’s products and services enable value-creation by outside entities; the platform provider of course in turn benefiting from the ecosystem which emerges around it’s platform. Apple’s App Store is a platform for app developers. Airbnb is a platform for “sharing” of apartments. Amazon offers multiple technological platforms for other companies to build their services upon. Etsy and eBay are platforms for selling one’s products. Etc.

Cicero’s toolkit helps in creating new platforms and, more recently, in re-inventing existing organizations as platforms. Which is something I’ve found very interesting in his thinking; the evolution from specifically looking at platforms as organizational structures around which to build an ecosystem to the idea of the Platform Organization (PO) within which employees and external entities collaborate, create, adapt and improve. I think that this vision, and the way it integrates learning at multiple levels, is extremely promising.

In this setting—and as is often the case for this magazine—learning is used as shorthand for improvement, adaptation, evolution. For example, when the organization measures something and changes according to what the metrics indicate, that’s organizational learning. When someone improves at a given task, s.he is learning. That’s somewhat self-evident but I’m pointing out that view because it helps us understand how so much of what people and businesses do should be seen as learning and how that framing becomes so useful as they change and adapt to their environment.

The Twin Engines

Cicero presents platforms as powered by two engines; the first being what is commonly thought of; the transactional engine. For example offering, searching for and renting apartments on Airbnb. While the second, the learning engine, is how users and “sellers” progress in their use of the platform, gaining skills and proficiencies, become better at the tasks they perform on said platform. This second engine is seen as both a way of keeping people interested and as fostering a higher quality of peer producers and consumers, benefiting themselves but also the platform in general.

The Key Engines in Platforms

[A]pplying platform thinking means to design a System of Value Creation that can be represented as a Transactions/Relationships engine and a Performance Improvement/Learning engine.
The Elements of the Platform Organization

This is also how people would gain reputation, new permissions, reserved features and, in some cases, go from fun or hobby to some form of part-time or permanent revenue, to even being considered “partners” on some services. Think of sellers on Etsy who go from selling few items made for fun to full time gigs, even to employing staff. Ultimately, this can even lead to participation in the governance;

When Platforms generate an evolutionary path ranging from initial participation and ending in participating in governance the learning process becomes the most powerful evolutionary engine for the Platform and the organization(s) behind it.
Why Platforms need to be Engines of Learning

You should have a look at the article quoted above to dive deeper into how Airbnb provides opportunities for users to improve and “level up” their usage of the service.

Platform For Collaboration

Organizations must now comply with long tails, transient needs and economies of scope, must give up planning and embrace adaptability, scalable experimentation and learning.
The Meaning of the Platform Organization

As I mentioned earlier, an interesting shift in understanding this idea of platform happens when you start thinking of the organization as a platform for collaboration and knowledge creation between team members and contributors. In other words, applying this model to any company, as a way of framing and structuring it, using platform design thinking ideas instead of hierarchies. Extending the model beyond its original use in creating and understanding Marketplace Platforms (MPs).

We consider platform thinking as a modern, contemporary and contextual way to look at organizations, strategy and processes, with new design capabilities.
How to Platform-ize existing Processes

In such a view, the company / legal entity, it’s governance, intelligence, culture and processes become the base on which teams collaborate, create and adapt constantly. The organization provides a structure upon which they operate as autonomously as possible, instead of a locked hierarchy through which they work rigidly. It then becomes “more a mix of software, practices, protocols, tools and (even unwritten) elementary rules such as a shared project management or strategizing approach.”

Governance gives the organization a vision to tend to and the energy to evolve in that direction. Governance is the process that is in charge of evolving the key components of the platform-organization (the culture, the intelligence, the platform—and the governance itself) and to run the platform model execution.
The Elements of the Platform Organization

Three Layers of Learning

The real objective of a (platform) organization is to nurture and facilitate relational learning, inside and outside, as a whole and in its peers.
There’s no such thing as a Platform

As I mentioned earlier, read “learning” as shorthand for improvement, adaptation, evolution. Whether talking about a MP or PO, we can always look for three forms or layers of learning: individual, collaborative / interactive, and the organization itself.


How individuals improve, discover new skills, adapt, progress through projects, etc. In a platform organization it’s the general progress of team members as they get better at their job / within their role. In a marketplace platform it would be how the user, peer producer or peer consumer masters the tools, gains reputation, levels of proficiency, etc.

Interactive & Relational

Largely done through collaboration, coaching, mentoring and helping others pass through liminal states. How individuals come together, learn from each other, find solutions, come up with new ideas, help each other move from one stage to another. In a PO this would usually (and quite naturally) be completely intertwined with individual learning, in an MP, especially an online one, it will often need to be something specifically built and fostered.


This layer can be seen as “the process of continuously shaping and reshaping the organization around its (experience driven) mission.” The governance team needs to define metrics for both engines of the platform (transactional and learning), determine what is working well, what is lacking. Are internal and external entities (team, collaborators, users, consumers, etc.) well served? Analyse and adjust accordingly. In the platform organization, some examples of aspects which might be tweaked would be; Human Resources development, supply chain and procurement, customer support and sales.

A Way To Look At Things

Let me restate the by now washed out evidence; things are changing fast and in complex patterns. Organizations and people need to adapt constantly.

In such a setting, Cicero’s platform toolkit can come in handy. As he wrote recently: “Remember that Platform design thinking is a way to look at things, and that everything can be designed as a Platform.”

It becomes a powerful viewpoint; looking at your organization as a platform for learning and at the people interacting with it internally and externally as important co-evolving participants. Focusing on observing, measuring and constantly adapting its components and offerings.

Every human is a phenomenally powerfully intelligent machine, yet we treat them as bad robots who don’t get it.
Indy Johar

Written as Editor-in-Chief for e180‘s We Seek online magazine.