Reassembling the Value Network for Business Model Innovation

A company never creates value in isolation. There are always other companies involved in some way to realising and delivering the final product for the customer. Such value chains of companies optimise connections on their complementary capabilities, which enables each to focus on what they’re good at.

The composition of a car is a good example here. Car manufacturers design, and assemble cars under their own brand. But all the parts required for assembly come from different suppliers (for pistons, suspension, braking technology, seat manufacturing, etc), and distribution & sales of the car to the final customer is done through networks of car dealers.

Value chain analysis is great for supporting business as usual. However, when you need to shift your business to a seemingly similar, adjacent customer segment (as is often case in today’s turbulent business environments), the value chain’s usefulness breaks down. The solution lies in framing partnership relations in a different way, as I’ll explain in this article.

The Functional Value Chain
Value chain analysis is a great way to understand production systems. You sketch out the value chain for the product from its origin to the end consumer. The value chain shows the companies involved in value creation, and the sequence in which value creation is achieved.

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The linkages in the value chain can be used to describe the relation between each company in that chain. The value chain is a great tool to examine how and where value is created, and where the risks in the production system reside.

The Disfunctional Value Chain
The value chain approach works well for analysing very formalised, industrial production systems with a clear hierarchy in the organisation of production. But the knowledge that comes from analysing the value chain gives an elusive sense of control about the ability to actually change a production system.

The instant you want to focus on a different customer segment, or change your value chain, because a partner role is not contributing value (or has become obsolete) you start sensing the illusion. Change takes more than replacing some of the mechanics in a sequential production system.

When changing your company, and changing the value chain with it, you see that in reality you are part of a complex, highly interdependent, nested production network, that is designed to drive value creation towards a very narrow purpose.

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Attempts to focus on a customer segment outside of the scope of that system flushes up restrictive dependencies, and the configuration’s immune system will have you ousted, rather than change with you. You’re on your own!

This is what Unilever experienced with the recent hostile take-over bid from competitor Kraft. Though Unilever, and its customers are on a change route to sustainable consumption, shareholders remain with their demand of maximising shareholder value. The Kraft bid showed how Unilever has set each foot in a different value network, and that this inconsistency can painfully split a company.

Changing Partner Relations
Professor Tim Kastelle said it well:

“not only do our end users have to prefer our idea, but we also have to get others within the value network to stop using [and supporting] our competitors”.

In order to change your business model to serve a different customer segment, you need to draw in partners involved in other value networks, and lure them to investing resources into yours.

To achieve this, the perspective on partnership relations needs to shift from that of value chain efficiency, and scale, to that of value network discovery, and growth. This entails that partnership relations shift from tweaking business model efficiency, to a joint search for creating, delivering, and capturing new value.

This shift can be seen in Amazon’s partnership with an air freighter. It’s not that existing value chain partners like UPS, and Fedex aren’t able to work to the particular requirements  of Amazon’s operations. It’s more so that Amazon’s B2C customer segment is adjacent to UPS, and Fedex’s existing core B2B customers. They have different demands regarding delivery rhythms, volumes, and shipping rates than Amazon’s customers.

The Business Model, and Partnership Canvas: Tools that change Perspective
The objective is to define the logic of tying 2 business models together in an exercise of joint value creation. Search is required to figure out how you can collaborate in such a way that both your, and your partner’s business benefit from this new value.

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Partnership Design, which is based on Alexander Osterwalder’s Business Model Canvas, and my  Partnership Canvas, provides a way for achieving this. Partnership Design frames partnering as a business model innovation challenge. It brings focus to value inputs that partners can respectively bring to the table to jointly create a new form of value for delighting customers.

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By focussing on the potential of synergy between value offered, and value desired from each partner, discussions on relationships are framed around the merit of their creative potential. It allows thinking to escape the trap of conventions of efficiency in partnership relations, and upfront disqualification of new linkages due to differences in company size, market power, and assumptions about where industry boundaries lie.

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By looking at your partners one-by-one, you can start to gradually reassemble your value network, around a new customer segment.

The Business Model, and Partnership Canvas help teams to quickly flesh out key hypotheses. These need to be tested to verify whether the new relationship will add value to both their partner’s, and their own business model at the same time.

Continue the exercise for all the partners that you’ll need to build the value network, and watch the ripple effects change an industry!

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Market size estimation in uncharted rural economies

Agriculture is the main driver of the rural economy in developing countries. Realizing product and service innovations targeted at these agriculture-based markets holds tremendous potential for creating new growth engines for business, as well as achieving social and economic development.

While this is a market with huge opportunity, it is also very difficult to navigate. Much of the rules and patterns of behavior are based on informal solutions to irregular and low incomes, semi-literacy, and social and environmental uncertainty.

Estimating your market in such an economy is not a likely task. Insights are yet to emerge on the radars of formal market intelligence approaches, like the chamber of commerce, or Google analytics, etc. And, if there’s little else to target specific customers by, than referring to them as a number of 2 billion or so people who grow crops on small pieces of land and rear animals, your business is likely to fail.

Needless to say, emerging rural economies require different market estimation approaches. We need to be more creative and develop proxies, which are more sensitive to picking up signals of upward market dynamics.

The water tank indicator
I recently had an idea for such a signal, based on some photo’s I took of water tanks during fieldwork. I still need to validate this thought, but I’ll write it out here, for sake of argument (I’m open to your comments!).

A water tank located near your home provides a lot of convenience. You can collect rainwater in substantial volumes that can be accessed from your own premises. Also it could help you eek out your water supply during the dry season.

The very common alternative to the water tank, is to walk to the water pump or the lake with a jerry can, for which you often need to cover substantial distances. Water tanks thus create a considerable saving on time and effort dedicated to fetch water. Time that can be freed up for other activities on your farm or on someone else’s farm.

Water tank in North Buganda Region, Uganda
Water tank in North Buganda Region, Uganda

Occasionally you will find a household that has invested in a tank, and my experience is that these are relatively well-off people, because water tanks are a big investment (or an NGO has dropped by with a program…). Could water tanks be a soft signal for upward mobility?

Now correlate this line of thought with a photo I made in Kagio in Kenya below. What would such an inventory of water tanks signal about the overall wealth dynamics of the area around this town? 

Water tank inventory in Kagio, Kenya
Water tank inventory in Kagio, Kenya

What we could do with such insights
I don’t know whether the water tank story will hold up if I try to validate it. But if it does prove to be relevant, it could be a very interesting indicator. It could help determine great locations for piloting or launching a new product or service for an emerging market segment with purchasing power. I think you could also use remote sensing data to locate such water tank inventory points, as they’re pretty conspicuous. This market sizing indicator might even be brought to scale!

The big question is whether it would be worthwhile to invest in digging up more of these insights. If we can create a validated set of such context-rich indicators that can be brought to scale, then we can inform the emergence of new growth pockets in a very resource extensive way. I think it might be worth a shot! Do you?


  • It’s hard to estimate the size of your market in an economy that is yet to emerge
  • If you want to take a new group of 2 billion non-customers online, then you need to become smart about your targeting methods.
  • It might be easier to infer purchasing potential from a water tank, than through formal survey methods that filter out the demographic that has that extra dollar per day to spend.