The following may seem an awful long way off-topic, but I don’t think it is. The adaptation, evolution and sometimes the demise of business models is central to social enterprise and indeed to all kinds of enterprise.
I have been following a fascinating discussion on the Digital Journalist website about the death of journalism and especially photojournalism. The discussion ranges from technical solutions, such as paywalls, to ‘social’ solutions, such as philanthropic investment in journalism (as a means of promoting and supporting public good), to business solutions, such as strategies to consolidate news/information sources, thus offering users single, convenient content-accounts, and offering advertisers larger, consolidated audiences.
The trail then went here, Revolutions in the media economy, four long and closely argued posts on a blog by David Campbell.
And then here, The end of journalism?, a post on Robert J Picard’s blog, The Media Business. Picard — who is Hamrin Professor of Media Economics at Jönköping University, Sweden — argues that current attempts to save ‘news’ (i.e. to ‘monetise’ it) confuses ‘product’ and ‘practise’. Journalism, he argues, has never been primarily a product: rather, it is a “body of practices”, and will be saved when we work out and understand “what manifestation it will take next”.
How is all this relevant to social enterprise, I hear you ask. Well, differentiating between ‘practise’ and ‘product’ can be extremely important to social enterprises. Social enterprises ‘practise’ a social mission — but they do this by trading in ‘products’. That’s where their revenue comes from. In some cases they may even find that their customers have little or no interest in purchasing what the business ‘practises’ (its social mission), focusing almost solely on the quality, price and usefulness of the product on offer. There may in these instances be a necessary differentiation between ‘practise’ and ‘product’, even if only in marketing terms.
Differentiating between ‘practise’ and ‘product’ is certainly relevant to many conventional voluntary organisations, some of which are struggling precisely because they have only their ‘practise’ to offer, and for this there are a declining number of paying customers.
The idea that activities can be divided into two component parts — their practise, and their products — seems a useful tool in helping us to understand how (and why) some business models must evolve if they are to survive. And more than this, it also seems to offer some useful lessons in how social enterprises might be even more adventurous in ‘separating’ product from practice — and I don’t mean by marginalising their social mission, I mean by raising the profile, profitability and performance of their products. After all, the greater the earning power of the products, the more good we can practise.