Thought leadership as a learning platform

Frequently in colloquial business language, ‘thought leadership’ refers to marketing activities such as maintaining a blog and publishing an ebook now and then. Viewing thought leadership as a Learning platform is a means to highlight what differentiates a strategic thought leadership program from an operative one.

This article presents the idea of ‘thought leadership’ as a concept that resembles a platform business, specifically a particular form of platform business called ‘learning platform’ (John Hagel / Deloitte, 2015). How does the idea work and, more importantly, what are the key success factors to building a learning platform that can be called thought leadership?

A learning platform brings together and hosts a community of people that share the aim of generating and sharing insights related to solving problem X. The owner of the learning platform facilitates creating best practices that contribute to the solution. That way, more value is created faster than what the platform owner could achieve if working alone.

Even if no financial transactions would take place on the learning platform (they might, though), over time all participants will win in the form of accumulated knowledge in solving problem X, and the platform owner should get to leverage this value-add in its own pricing. Let’s call this value-add the platform owners’ cut, or the ROI of the investment in a thought leadership program.

Building a Learning platform – a layered approach

The underlying business model of an aspirational thought leader doesn’t matter. It can be anything ranging from a traditional linear model where raw material components are turned into products or services to a genuine platform business where the platform owner doesn’t have to own any of the means of production but can live by taking a cut of the transactions taking place on the platform.

The idea of building thought leadership is to build a learning platform on top of the company’s fundamental business model, whatever it may be.

For simplicity and a visual presentation of the idea, let’s picture a company’s fundamental business model using Osterwalder’s Business Model Canvas. The canvas lies flat on the ground.

As next, let’s picture the canvas covered by a blanket called Strategy. Obviously, strategy is not a separate item from the underlying business model but is tightly knitted to it, hence a less than perfect metaphor. We’ll use it anyway for simplicity.

Strategy, in turn, divides into sub-strategies depending on the particular industry and business model. The blanket of Strategy is a  patchwork quilt formed by such patches as Customer strategy, Offering strategy, Brand strategy, Delivery strategy, Technology strategy, and Financing strategy.

Now, we want to add another blanket on the Strategy layer called Learning platform. In fact, we want to stich it together with the Strategy blanket much the same way the Strategy blanket has been stitched onto the Business Model.

The question becomes: Which parts of the Strategy blanket should carry the most weight of the Learning platform? And, what should the Learning platform itself be made of?

In other words, if we are building a thought leadership program and call it a ’Learning platform’, what are the success factors of building a successful one? We’ll group the success factors into three:

  • We want to become a thought leader in solving problem X.
  • Let’s first think of how we go about solving it. A Solution Model is needed.
  • We then also need to know what good looks like and why one solution may be better than another. Let’s build a Solution Maturity Model.
  • We obviously need to know who benefits from our solution and how we communicate to and with our beneficiaries. Hence we need the
  • Messaging to our stakeholders,
  • the Channels to reach them, and,
  • since we are looking to build a Learning platform not only for ourselves but for all our stakeholders, we need to build a Community.
  • Since the above activities require an investment of resources, we need analytics to demonstrate that our efforts move a needle.
  • Since we are calling our thought leadership program a Learning platform, we must make sure that we continuously contribute to learning.
  • Our role as a platform owner is to collect, structure, analyze and share what learning has been achieved together with our community. That way, an evolving knowledge base is accumulated over time that benefits not only us but the entire community. (A structured knowledge base is critical for the platform owner in earning its own power and leadership position: An evolving knowledge base ties the Community to this particular platform.)

So we get a list of seven success factors to a thought leadership program / learning platform: Solution model, Maturity model, Messaging, Channels, Community, Analytics, and Knowledge base creation.

Coming back to the numbering of the above list, we can group the Success factors roughly under specific areas of Strategy:

  • Out of the success factors, the Solution and Maturity models should grow from the company’s Offering strategy.
  • Messaging, Channels, Community and Analytics should grow primarily from Customer and Brand strategies, with tight linkages back to Offering strategy.
  • Finally, Knowledge base creation grows from all of the above, plus Delivery and Financing strategies, and Technology strategy as applicable in the particular business.

A Learning platform, aka our thought leadership program, ties fundamentally to the different areas of Strategy, with Customer, Brand and Offering strategies carrying the most weight.