Net Worth John Hagel III and Marc Singer
Net Worth is relevant to three very different audiences. To business leaders in perhaps fifty large and mature businesses, not yet publicly associated with innovation on the Net , it provides a detailed plan for building a $4bn turnover businesss within ten years, by dominating a new business category, that of `infomediary'. Achieving category dominance has high initial investment costs but, particularly in relation to other Net business lines, it is genuinely a category where winner takes all and with highly attractive barriers to new competitors. To database marketers, to vendors of consumer data and to CRM specialists, it sets out the very different model which the Net will create in the way consumer data are accessed, used and profitably traded. To the generalist reader of business titles it offers a clear and challenging argument as to why, to survive, most businesses will have to focus much more selectively on a much narrower section of the value chain than they currently attempt to cover.
Despite its title, I suspect that Net Worth has little to say to those whose interest in the Internet is as a tool for delivering information to consumers. Its focus is on the Internet as a tool for generating information about consumers. But do not think you couldn't profit from this book just because you are not an e-commerce specialist..
A sequel to Net Gain The authors are consultants at McKinsey & Co. For one, John Hagel, Net Worth represents the evolution of a thought process begun in Net Gain. The thought process is an original one - it does not seem to borrow on other academic literature - but it is clear that the authors have benefited from much collective pondering on the part of McKinsey as to where equity value is most likely to be gained in an Internet-enabled world.
Polemical clarity The style is neither that of an academic or of a practitioner. To some it may seem too much a polemic. At times it is as though you are reading transcripts of board level management presentations. You are bludgeoned rather than seduced. There is little room for uncertainty - other than who will win the prize - and none for humour. Full marks, however, for the clarity of the text and of the argument. Copyright, intersetingly, is vested in McKinsey.
The Net Worth thesis is built on a clearly articulated model. In this model companies will in the future increasingly specialise in particular stages of the value chain, in innovation within the production of specific consumer services, almost as commodities; in the manner in which these products and services are communicated to, and delivered in customised form to meet the increasingly specific demands and circumstances of, individual customers; and in infrastructure support services which will become increasingly standardised. Innovation, customisation and cost reduction will be the core qualities needed by successful companies in these three stages of the value chain.
Customer profiles The `customisers', who specialise in the management of the customer relationship, will have at the core of their business proposition the leveraging of information on consumers, or customer `profiles'. To deliver effective personalisation and satisfy increasingly demanding consumers, these organisations will need to operate across multiple product categories. In addition, they will increasingly rely on their ability to gain the active endorsement of the consumer for access to and use of their web usage as well as demographic and product purchasing characteristics. Expertise in the manipulation of these data to provide tailored services to both consumers and to potential providers will be their key competence.
Infomediaries To the consumer, allowing a trusted infomediary to consolidate their personal profile into a single data source has a number of attractions. It reduces the number of times common personal attributes have to be made available to suppliers. Assuming the infomediary can be trusted, it reduces the concerns over privacy and misuse of personal data. By interposing between the consumer and providers, the infomediary can negotiate better terms with suppliers; can require them to customise their offers in such a way as to better meet the needs of groups of consumers with similar needs; can enforce controls to suppress irrelevant communication, and conversely can initiate relevant proactive communications. In an era when the consumer is increasingly unwilling to offer personal information without exacting a price, and when most companies lack the expertise to pattern existing data into sensible communication strategies, such a shift would offer benefits all round.
A frictionless market? Few readers would find flaws in this logic, other than the touchingly Benthamite faith in the extent to which rational self-interest can be relied on to drive consumer behaviour into a world in which brand values - other than those of the trusted infomediary of course - would increasingly wither away. Hagel and Singer's heaven is a totally frictionless market - which marks them out as inhabitants of the Net world rather than that of Madison Square.
Outsourcing Whatever companies' ambitions to relive past glories, Hagel and Singer are particularly compelling when they argue how, in an increasingly complex business world, companies cannot survive unless they develop management cultures appropriate to the positions in the value chain they want to fill, and that the contrasting cultures for each position are becoming increasingly difficult for any single organisation to nurture and sustain within a single operation. From outsourcing the canteen and the cleaning, and then the manufacturing of assembled components, it may not be absurd for Ford to move to the outsourcing of the entire manufacturing process, but not the design, while it positions itself to the consumer as the relationship manager for all consumer (and business) needs associated with the funding, provision, insurance and maintenance of personal transportation needs.
The benefits of scale The other proposition I found compelling - as one might expect from McKinsey employees - was that, unlike other Internet businesses, many of which suffer from very low entry barriers and attempt to replicate traditional businesses but in more frictionless and hence lower cost forms - the position of an infomediary was more akin to the owner of an operating system in terms of benefits of scale. The more customers you have persuaded to trust you with their data, the greater your commercial influence with suppliers on their behalf. The more producers you deal with, the greater the width of data you build up on your consumer customers, and the more attractive you become to them. The more they deal through you, and the longer your relationship, the richer becomes your database and the more difficult it becomes for competitors to provide your customers with a service of equal value. Such dynamics do not apply to the same degree to individual sites or to portals, or indeed to suppliers of `old world' products and services.
Given the pace of change in the world of e-commerce, you might suppose that the Net Worth thesis could increasingly be justified or refuted by market events in the 18 months since its original conception. Other than Scoot I cannot at present identify any aspirant European infomediary as would be defined by Hagel and Singer. However, in markets such as financial services, utilities, cars, home buying and travel, in the UK at least, we are daily witnessing the decomposition of the traditional value chain as predicted. What is foretold in this book is, I'm confident, a long-term shift, and I would hazard that evidence so far supports rather than refutes the arguments it sets out.
In summary, a worthwhile read. You don't have to read it all, or read it in any particular sequence. Better read in a train or plane than at home or on holiday.
Richard Webber FIDM Managing Director Micromarketing Division, Experian, UK
This review was published in the Journal - Interactive Marketing. [...]