1 May 2015

Servitization and Service Innovation in China: Reflections from Shanghai

I’ve just spent a week in China, visiting the Southern China University of Technology (Guangzhou) and Ceibs, the international business school in Shanghai. While at Ceibs I participated in the first seminar on “Servitization and Service Innovation”. Attended by around 100 people, industrial speakers at the seminar included eCoal (an online coal purchasing platform), HP, Sevalo (a construction and mining equipment services business) and SKF. While Professors Marjorie Lyles (Indiana University), Chris Voss (Warwick Business School), Xiande Zhao (Ceibs) and I delivered academic presentations. It was a great trip, fascinating in so many ways, but I thought I might write a short blog about some of the themes that came out for me at the seminar. These include:

1.     The importance of technology to China - all the speakers talked about the way technology is changing China’s approach to business. They talked about all the traditional topics - cloud computing, big data, mobile, the need for better security. But they also talked about internet plus, China’s equivalent to Germany’s industrie 4.0 and the rest of the world’s internet of things. They recognise that as more and more devices are connected to the net, ever greater volumes of data will be created and these data can potentially deliver new and valuable business insights if analysed and interpreted correctly.

2.     Platforms were also a major theme - many of the firms that spoke, including many of those in the audience, were looking to create platforms, often to combine buying power and/or to utilize spare capacity. eCoal, for example, has created a coal buying platform which allows it to drive significant cost savings by pooling purchasing across multiple organisations. HP claimed to be the world’s biggest retailer of paper. With their print on demand services, where you pay per page rather than for the printer, HP is forced to buy large volumes of paper. But with large volumes comes the opportunity to negotiate discounts for bulk purchasing.

3.     One reason so many firms were interested in platforms was the massive success of China’s three stars of eBusiness - Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent (the Chinese refer to them as BAT). These three firms dominate China’s discussion of eBusiness and have all successfully created platforms, which in turn create multi-sided markets. Tencent, for example, offers users access to free online games, sells the eyeballs to advertisers, but also sells the players of games equipment upgrades. A dominant question underlying many of the comments at the forum, was how do we create platforms that will allows us to capture multiple, complementary sources of revenue for our businesses.

4.     We also talked about challenges of servitizing - the fact that having a strong product heritage or brand sometimes makes it more difficult to offer services. Interestingly a number of the speakers referred back to the roots of their organisations, obviously product of their firm’s history, but I wondered whether history also constrained their thinking about the future. SKF asked some fantastic questions about servitization. How do we persuade our customers to buy solutions from us before we have proved their value? Who buys services and solutions? Procurement is typically not structured that way. It thinks about products and categories, yet services and solutions often cross multiple products and categories.

5.     And finally we talked about enablers of servitization - what would make the transition to services easier. Through the course of the seminar I heard five key themes: (i) get inside the mind of your customer’s customer. Understand what is value to them, so you can better help your customer create value for their customer; (ii) to understand you need deep relationships - ask yourself are we really close enough to our customers; (iii) seek to balance control and collaboration in the ecosystem - not everyone needs to control or create a ecosystem. Sometimes you have to accept you are part of one and the best you can do is seek to influence it. Think about creating win-win-win across the ecosystem to drive change; (iv) learn from your experience, codify it and share it; and (v) think about solutions - SKF has created solutions factories where they can work with customers to solve their problems. Using your own ideas and technology collaboratively with the customer is a great way of getting inside their minds and building a deep relationship with them.

One of the great privileges of life as an academic is the opportunity to travel, to experience different countries and cultures. I never fail to be inspired when I go somewhere different and meet someone new. My latest trip to China was no exception.

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