When most people think about the rise of digital platforms, it’s the usual disruptors and big names that come to mind. Facebook. Amazon. Netflix. Google. They’ve transformed industries and achieved off-the-charts growth and profitability. But digital platforms aren’t just for emerging companies and innovators anymore. Consider Gartner Glossary’s most recently available definition of a platform below:

A platform is a product that serves or enables other products or services. Platforms (in the context of digital business) exist at many levels. They range from high-level platforms that enable a platform business model to low-level platforms that provide a collection of business and/or technology capabilities that other products or services consume to deliver their own business capabilities.

Indeed, platforms are making their way into businesses of all sizes across all industries, functioning on levels both large and small, internally and externally. We uncovered a recent Harvard Business School Working Knowledge article that looks at how conventional companies can become platform leaders, exploring the topic with David Yoffie, author of the new book, The Business of Platforms: Strategy in the Age of Digital Competition, Innovation, and Power. The Q&A interview with Yoffie offers some great insights on the latest trends, common mistakes, and advice for exploring digital platforms—and how they can impact the business.

According to the article, “Platforms do not evolve in predictable ways, and there is a lot that managers and entrepreneurs can learn about past, present, and future platform strategies.” One trend worth noting is the blurring of lines between transactional and innovation platforms. The success of so-called “hybrid” platforms that are linked and can operate simultaneously is a prime example of platform evolution. The article cites Google as a platform for search that also operates as a platform to sell advertising as one example. Keeping an open mind—and open APIs—can help keep your company in a position to realize unforeseen opportunities with new types of platforms.

The article notes that the single most important driver of platform success is what Koffie refers to as “network effects” that allow companies to “scale at incredible speed.” But it’s not enough. Other success factors include making it difficult for users to “multihome” or switch between different platforms, and identifying homogeneous uses versus heterogeneous ones that can be more fragmented in their usage.

For companies that want to explore the value of platforms, Koffie offers up three strategies: join an existing platform, buy one, or build one. Joining a platform can be the quickest and easiest way to get started. Buying a platform, of course, comes at a higher cost and higher risk but can accelerate entrance into a platform business. Finally, building one is not surprisingly the most difficult and uncommon approach—and often the one met with the most failure.

If you’d like to learn more, including common mistakes to avoid when launching a platform, check out the complete Harvard Business School Working Knowledge article here. You can also read this APEX of Innovation post on how to implement the right digital platform strategy.

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