The visualizations of business models can be useful tools for organizations to reflect on how they create and capture value, but as business model visualizations become more comprehensive, they also become more complex. Given the goal of reducing complexity for organizational sense making, this evolution has furthered a gap between theory and practice. We have distilled our experiences using business model visualizations in organizational contexts to identify useful revisions to business model visualizations to aid in sense-making. In this article, we employ the metaphor of a prism and the process of refraction to further refine the visualization of business models, with the goal of aiding organizations in their sense making. We introduce the PRISM framework for organizational sense making of the elements, dimensions, and lenses of organizations through which they operate and make sense of their environment, and we offer real-world examples of how the PRISM framework aided in organizational sense making. Our research contributes to helping close the gap between theoretical business model visualizations and the usefulness of these visualizations to reduce complexity in real-world organizational contexts. In addition, given our alignment with purpose-driven approaches to strategy development and implementation, we also contribute to theoretical discussions of the business-society interface and conceptualizations of value.
Business model visualizations, purpose-driven strategy, business-society interfaces.
In optics, a prism is defined as transparent material, useful for analyzing and reflecting light. In a process called refraction, prisms can separate white light into its constituent colors (i.e., a spectrum; see Figure 1). Prisms can be used as instruments for analyzing light. For example, in the context of optics, prisms can be used to determine the identity and structure of materials that emit or absorb light.
Just as a person can be surrounded by white light without considering the full spectrum of colors they are immersed in, organizations can fail at considering the full dimensionality at play around them. At its core, the literature on business model (innovation) deals with the sense making that organizations do in the context in which they operate—specifically regarding how value is created and captured by an organization (McGrath, 2010; Teece, 2010; Hossain, 2017). As the transgressions of social and environmental limitations becomes more articulated (Raworth, 2017), organizations are faced with mounting pressure to (re)assess their role in society. Major disruptions, crises, and transitions in society (for example, climate crisis and the transition to clean energy) intensify the need for organizations to continuously analyze how they create and capture value based on changes in their environment—i.e., the spectrums of light in which they are immersed.
The visualization of business models can be useful tools for organizations to reflect on how they create and capture value (Täuscher and Abdelkafi, 2017). Through our interactions with organizations as academics and strategic consultants, we have found indeed business models are useful frameworks for sense-making around value, but as business model visualizations become more comprehensive, they also become more complex. Given the goal of reducing complexity for organizational sense making (Doz and Korsonen, 2010), this evolution has furthered a gap between theory and practice (Täuscher and Abdelkafi, 2017). Through our experience using business model visualization in organizational context, we have identified useful revisions to business model visualizations to aid in sense-making, which can foster increased organizational resilience.
In this article, we employ the metaphor of a prism and the process of refraction to further refine the visualization of business models, with the goal of aiding organizations in their sense making. We introduce the PRISM framework for organizational sense making of the elements, dimensions, and lenses of organizations through which they operate and make sense of their environment. Within this sense-making context, PRISM facilitates the identification of effects from internal operations like managerial choices, as well as changes in the external environment. We posit that organizations significantly increase their chance to sense and capture value when they adapt a purpose-driven approach to strategy development and implementation. To help organizations do so, the PRISM metaphor of refracting light provides an easy to understand visualization of often complex and highly interrelated or correlated elements, dimensions, and lenses. Through time, the organizations’ sense making changes and requires contextual framing both within, as well as outside, the organization resulting in fluid boundaries between the elements management can control as well as the dimensions through which the organization interacts with its environment.
Our article contributes to helping close the gap between theoretical business model visualizations and the usefulness of these visualizations to reduce complexity in real-world organizational contexts (Doz and Kosonen, 2010; Täuscher and Abdelkafi, 2017). Given our alignment with purpose-driven approaches to strategy development and implementation, we also contribute to theoretical discussions of the business-society interface and conceptualizations of value. In Section 2, we offer the reader background context on value creation and capture, the concepts at the heart of business model innovation (McGrath, 2010; Teece, 2010). In Section 3, we introduce the PRISM framework, and in Section 4, we illustrate the usefulness of the PRISM framework in the context of organizational sense making. In Section 5, we offer the reader concluding remarks and possible pathways for further research.
At its core, the literature on business model (innovation) considers how value is created and captured by an organization (McGrath, 2010; Teece, 2010; Hossain, 2017). However, the conceptualization of value can vary. Classic business model (innovation) literature adopts a profit-orientated conceptualization of value. For example, Yunus et al. (2010) argued that the three components of a business model are: value proposition, value constellation, and the profit equation, thus adopting a profit-orientated conceptualization of value. The literature on sustainable business model (innovation) challenges this, and proposes a broader conceptualization of “value” to include societal and/or environmental value. For example, Bocken et al. (2019) described how firms should explore how positive societal and/or environmental value can be increased, while negative value can be reduced. In this case, the function of business model innovation would be to maximize societal and/or environmental value while maintaining economic feasibility as a constraint on that equation. Situated in between these two logics, is the concept of Shared Value Creation (Porter and Kramer, 2011). While not replacing profit as the dependent variable in a function firms aim to maximize, Shared Value Creation illustrates that there is potential to have synergies between social/environmental and economic value creation.
Kleine and von Hauff, M. (2009) offer a useful visualization for the discussion of varying conceptualizations of value. In their Integrative Sustainability Triangle (Figure 2), value can be conceived as economic, ecological, social, and/or varying interactions between those extreme points. For example, Shared Value Creation is a conceptualization of value that combines economic value with either social or ecological value (i.e., the bottom right of Figure 2). In “sustainable” or “social” enterprises, economic value (i.e., economic feasibility) acts as a constraint rather than the primarily goal of “value creation” (i.e., the left side of the Figure 2).
In terms of an organization’s conceptualization of value, Dyllick and Muff (2016) offer a useful trajectory of business sustainability typologies (Table 1). “Business-as-usual” adheres to classic conceptualizations of value as being economic. Business Sustainability 1.0 refines this conceptualization of value, and actively looks for synergies between economic and environmental/social value (i.e., Porter and Kramer, 2011). Business Sustainability 2.0 attempts to balance value created across the domains of economic, social, and environmental value (i.e., Elkington, 1997). Business Sustainability 3.0 replaces the economic conceptualization of value with environmental and/or social value (e.g., Social Enterprises).
It should be noted that in this article, we refer to typologies of conceptualizations of value using ideal types. Ideal types are a mental construct that deliberately accentuates certain characteristics and not necessarily accurate reflections of reality (Lüdeke-Freund et al., 2018). In the real-world, organizations adopt varying conceptualizations of value. Even publically-traded firms, under immense pressure to maximize shareholder value will have some social and/or environmental value creation, just as the most “social” or “sustainable” enterprises will have some negative environmental and/or social impacts.
Table 1: The Business Sustainability Typology (Dyllick and Muff, 2016)
Business Sustainability Typology (BST)
Business Sustainability 1.0
Refined shareholder value
Business Sustainability 2.0
Triple bottom line
Business Sustainability 3.0
Creating value for the common good
The key shifts involved
1st shift: broadening the business concern
2nd shift: expanding the value created
3rd shift: changing the perspective
At its essence, innovating business models in a strategic context helps firms in the process of acquiring external knowledge and integrating it with internal knowledge to create and capture value (Hossain, 2017). The act of internalizing knowledge about the external context in which an organization operates is the backbone of strategy. For example, Porter and colleagues consider how the forces on a firm (i.e., threat of new entrants, threat of substitutes, bargaining power of customers, bargaining power of suppliers, and competitive rivalry), as well as factors around a firm (i.e., industry growth rate, technology and innovation, government, complementary products and services) require a firm to (re)assess its strategy (Porter, 2008). In furthering their work in the direction of Shared Value Creation, Porter and colleagues considered changes in the external environment that could trigger the opportunity for Shared Value Creation (Porter and Kramer, 2011). As illustrated in Figure 3, these changes could come from the larger context (e.g., environmental or social policies), changing demands (e.g., eco-conscious consumers), related supporting industries (e.g., open innovation), as well as factor conditions (e.g., new technologies).
Bocken and colleagues dove deeper into the act of firms identifying opportunity for creating social and/or environmental value in the process of ideation. Bocken et al. (2013) stressed that counter to Shared Value Creation, there is also Value Missed (i.e., an opportunity for Shared Value Creation not acted upon), or even Value Destroyed (i.e., negative environmental and/or impacts). The author provide a valuable aid for visualizing the dimensionality of value (Figure 4). Similar to business model resilience—i.e., a firm’s ability to maintain or quickly adapt its value proposition to current and future uncertain conditions (Radic et al., 2022)—the ability of firms to sense opportunities, seize opportunities (mobilize resources), and transform (continued renewal of the organization) are important in identifying and capture potential value (Bocken and Geradts, 2020).
While it is commonly agreed on is that business model (innovation) deals with how value is created and captured by an organization, the literature on business model (innovation) is rich with perspectives on what exactly the construct entails (McGrath, 2010; Teece, 2010; Hossain, 2017). In their seminal contribution, Osterwalder and Pigneur (2010) proposed nine constructs (i.e., “building blocks”) around which discussions of BMI should occur in an organization (customer segments, value propositions, channels, customer relationships, revenue streams, key resources, key activities, key partnerships, and cost structure). The authors transform these building blocks into a common visualization of BMI—the Business Model Canvas (Osterwalder and Pigneur, 2010). Since then, constructs have been added or elaborated upon, and the visualization(s) of business model (innovation) have taken many forms (e.g., Ebel et al, 2016; Joyce and Paquin, 2016; França et al., 2017; Bocken et al., 2019). Jin et al. (2021) reviewed the literature on BMI and delineated the main dimensions into their Business Model Innovation Theory Model (simplified in Figure 5). As the authors describe, “The theoretical model shows that business model innovation is an innovation system composed of seven components in three stages: innovation motivation (value driven), innovation action (value goal innovation, value proposition innovation, value creation innovation, value transmission innovation, value capture innovation), and innovation evaluation (value evaluation), with value flow as carrier, and value goal and value proposition as the core (Jin et al., 2021: 1465).
The Model presented by Jin et al. (2021) is arguably the most comprehensive in the literature, and is therefore well positioned to guide theoretical discussion of BMI. But its comprehensiveness might actually hinder the use of this visualization in real-world contexts. Täuscher and Abdelkafi (2017) discussed the visualization of BMI from a cognitive perspective. As the authors state, “ Visual business model representations are artifacts that stimulate collaborative innovation (Eppler and Hoffman, 2012), reduce complexity (Doz and Kosonen, 2010), uncover hidden structures within a business model (Casadesus-Masanel and Ricart, 2007), enable firms to communication the business model effectively (Osterwalder, 2004), and represent a tool for knowledge sharing (Doganova and Eyguem-Renault, 2009) (Täuscher and Abdelkafi, 2017: 160). Indeed, in our role dialoging with firms on business model innovation and implementation, we have found that overly complex visualizations of the business model are not ideal for reducing complexity in the context of organizational sense making about value creation and capture. Responding to Täuscher and Abdelkafi’s (2017) finding that visual representations do not always fulfill their role in supporting organizations, we have distilled our experiences sense-making about value creation and capture with organizations to develop a visual aid tool that increases the ability of organizations to make sense of the elements at play in and around them. In Section 3, we present the PRISM framework. In our visualization, we employ the metaphor of a prism as an heuristic for the business-society interface (Audebrand, 2010). In Section 4, we offer examples of how PRISM aided in organizational sense making.
At any given moment in time, an organization–in its simplest and purest form—consists of three main elements: its products (offering including services), its processes (activities, organizing), and people. We posit that these three elements are the cornerstones of sense making for an organization, and therefore are positioned as the base of the PRISM (Figure 6). The organization itself is visualized as the inside of the PRISM, while the external environment is light around the PRISM.
The interaction between the three elements and the consequential effect of managerial choices result in three interacting dimensions within the organization. On the interface of process and products, the organization designs and executes its business model. On the interface between product and people, the value of the organization is defined as its value will be determined by people both internally as well as externally. On the interface of people and process the organization’s culture and the resulting behavior of people is defined. At the center of the PRISM is the organizations’ purpose (Figure 7). More so than a strategy, vision, or plan – a purpose defines more broadly why the organization exists. At the center, the purpose of an organization has an interaction with all key dimensions of the organization and needs to propagate through the business model, the culture as well as the value of the organization.
In sensing, seizing, and transforming, changes in the external environment (e.g., a regulatory change) management has direct control to influence these three elements. An organization can respond to a change in regulation by refining its offering, for example, a plastic production firm could respond to a regulatory change by using recycled stream as feed input. But a change to one of the points of the triangle will have an effect on the other two. For example, if a firm decides to make a change to their offering (e.g., using recycled feed), they will also have to change their production processes to account for this, and may also require new personnel expertise. Often, a change in one element results in (required) changes in the others, which in their turn require careful assessment. Changes that occur internally (i.e., as in the need for additional production process or expertise), will also change how the organization interacts with the external environment. For example, business-to-business customer’s interest in recycled plastics, and further downstream, end consumer’s interest in recycled products.
Management does not have the direct ability to change the dimensions of business model, value, or culture (as much as it might wish to). Management only has the ability to indirectly influence these dimensions through changes to the product, process, or people. However, the external environment sees and interacts with the dimensions of business model, value, and culture. The organizations’ purpose will therefore need to be propagated through these dimensions in order to seen by the outside world. Management can alter the dimensions through a purpose-driven change of its elements affecting the three dimensions. Often, it is through a desire to change business model, value, or culture that changes are made to product, process, or people. Changing a point on the triangle morphs its shape, so the PRISM is not static, but rather in constant morphosis.
Most business models are represented as a static construct, whereas in reality an organization moves through time and is required to iterate on all its elements as well as dimensions through a process that is mostly known as strategy implementation. The face of the PRISM and its resulting lenses are drawn out over time through iterative cycles (Figure 8).
Through time the PRISM becomes a three-dimensional shape with continued internal interactions between its business model, value, and its culture (Figure 8). Additionally, the shape will result in three lenses that define how the PRISM interacts with the environment (i.e., the light). Effectively the three dimensions of business model, value, and culture become the three lenses affecting the way an organization makes sense of, as well as operates within, a specific environment. The result of iteration is that previous performance or abilities of the organization might no longer be predictors in future contexts. While in the context of strategy revision or implementation, businesses are likely to design from a static view of the organization (in its context), PRISM encourages organizations to adopt an iterative process via the lenses of business models, value, and culture in a context through time. The purpose serves as an anchor for the development of the organization through time from which the dimensions can draw inspiration and direction from. A strong and clear purpose at the core becomes an essential element to ensure the stability of the organization over time and prevent the different lenses to cross.
The resulting (visual) heuristic is useful for organizations to keep in mind: 1) the central role of purpose for organizations when sensing, seizing, and transforming, 2) that management does not have direct control over business models, culture, or value, 3) that changes to one part of the prism do not happen in isolation, 4) that the light around organizations interacts with the organization through the dimensions of business model, value, and culture, and 5) that resilient organizations are in constant morphosis. For example, the PRISM reminds the organizations about the non-static nature of organizations sense making in change environments (i.e., due to disruptions or evolutions in their environment), whereas other visualizations (e.g., The Business Model Canvas) appear as static. The PRISM also visualizes the critical role that people can have, which we feel is sometimes overlooked in business model innovation literature that commences from a more engineering perspective of organizations (e.g., Bocken et al., 2019). An organization’s people and their behavior define an organizations ability to sense and seize value, as well as transform a culture. The usefulness of the PRISM visualization will be further elaborated on the Section 4 with examples from real organizations that have employed PRISM.
In PRISM, organizations’ consider interactions with the environment as refracting white light into spectrums to better make sense of it. The spectrums represent the sense making of the organization through its internal dimensions and the resulting interpretation of the external environment. Through time, both the environment as well as the organization will undergo changes, this results in four possible situations in which the organization can:
Sustain (Similar light, stability of lenses): Stable operation of the organization in which it is able to make sense of the existing environment. An assessment of management would still be required to understand the effectiveness and appropriateness of the organizational operation.
For example, consider the car builder Tesla. With a clear and stable trend towards electrified transportation they are currently well positioned in all their dimensions to continue their existing business trajectory. Interestingly, where the environment for Tesla is unchanged, and their business models are significantly more vertically integrated compared to traditional car manufacturers resulting in much higher margins, the latter faces a similar environment with potentially outdated business models, value drivers, and likely also culture.
Endure (Change in light, stability of lenses): A change in the environment results in a different refractive pattern, the interaction of the organization with the environment is different not by the organization’s doing but by a change in the environment. Management will need to re-assess the appropriateness of its business model, culture, and value and make changes if required.
For example, consider the case of Kodak confronted with the digitalization of cameras—while the internal capability and innovation was present, the required product changes were not implemented (i.e., opportunities were sensed by not seized).
Enhance (Similar light, changes in lenses): A situation in which changes of the organization are managed to improve its sense making of the environment. Changes can only be made on the elements of product, process, or people with a resulting change in the dimensions of business models, culture, and value. These changes will result in a different operation of the organization and hence a different interaction with its environment, either for better or worse.
In reality, companies are continuously optimizing to environments that change slowly over time and remain similar within the typical business planning cycles. Some have more success than others in this though. For example, consider Starbucks and their customer first, technology-driven approach to grow, or in certain ways Netflix’s transition to streaming, Microsoft cloud services, or Apple’s i-tunes and later i-phones. These are all examples of how a business model was adjusted through either adjusting their process or product.
Amplify (Change in light, changes in lenses): This is an ambiguous situation in which the organization is unable to make sense of its environment. Management would need to re-assess the changes in the lenses whilst the environment is changing, a potential approach could be a scenario-based assessment where different environmental scenarios are tested against different sets of lenses.
For example, the transition to a hydrogen economy or elimination of single-use plastics. There is a clear external environmental driver including a gradual change in consumer behavior as well as legislative changes. The existing business models or value drivers to produce green (or at least blue) hydrogen, or produce circular plastics, are not yet existing and are often in conflict with other sustainability drivers like clean energy production. This inevitably leads to a wide array of companies applying different approaches without a clear indication which organization has uncovered the best fitting business model or culture to deal with the ambiguous and quickly changing environment.
The development of the PRISM framework is the result of advising organizations—varying from multinational companies, SMEs, and non-profits. Through using PRISM as a sense-making framework in organizations, various highlights of PRISM as a useful (visual) heuristic have arisen. In this section, we highlight three illustrative scenarios we feel are useful for further theorizations (as well as practical implementations) of BMI: 1) a change in people, 2) a change in product, 3) a change in process.
The first discussion point deals a decision about people through which the organization acted to enhance (similar light, changes in lenses). We refer to a case of a Belgian non-profit organization with the mission to represent the voice of children who are in the care of the state (in foster homes, or house in state-run institutions). Given that the purpose of the organization is the positive impact on youth (i.e., social value), the organization took the decision to hire only people with experience in care institutions looking for their first working experience. The idea was double faceted. While on the one side, hiring persons from this context would have a direct value added for the individuals hired, it was also seen as necessary to increase the trust and openness of the youth that the organizations serves (i.e., value for children in the care of the state). Hence, this decision has obvious advantages in terms of alignment of people with the purpose and the desired culture the non-profit wanted to achieve.
This is where PRISM served as a sense making tool to understand the influence of these choices on the organization and act accordingly. The decision on new hires had tangible impacts on the organization’s culture, as well as its ability to carry out its mission (i.e., value). New hires lacked work experience and often required psychological support as a result of a lack of trust and instability experienced growing up. As a result, the organization experienced high levels of sick leave and burn outs. Additionally, the lack of experience and psychological support needs resulted in a reduced ability of the organization to carry out its mission (i.e., number of projects organized, as well as reach), given the time needed for support, guidance, and conflict resolution internally. This choice regarding the people element shifted the PRISM of the organization, and required a shift in product (a reduction in the scope of projects is could carry out) and process (additional support for personnel) to maintain organizational resilience.
The second discussion point deals with a decision about product through which the organization chose to amplify (change in light, changes in lenses). The case was a multinational producer of plastics that sensed an opportunity to introduce a new product containing more recycled plastics. The change in product was in response to an increase in demand for more sustainable solutions in the plastics industry (business-to-business customer, as well as end users). Although the change was initially considered a simple product alteration, it resulted in a different business model as well as required a change in organizational culture, and hence was quickly identified as a much larger effort where process (both technical and procedural) as well as people (development of different skillsets) related changes were required. This is where the PRISM framework delivered true value as a sense making tool to understand the influence of this change and its consequences. For example, quality control and certification became very important which significantly affected the business model and interaction with customers. That cascaded down to new requirements and competencies of the staff which enabled new ways of thinking within the organization and therefore affected the organizational culture.
The third scenario involves a change in process in which an organization choose to enhance (similar light, changes in lenses). The case was a small accountancy firm, who redesigned their strategy to focus on specific (high-end) customer segments. As a result they were advised to change their pricing strategy from an hourly rate to a yearly fixed fee. What initially started as a simple process change soon turned out to have significantly more implications in different dimensions, PRISM acted as a compass to identify them so they could be managed accordingly:
a. Value: The pricing approach was tailored perfectly to clients they wanted to reach, clients wo value predictability and reliability over being ensured of the lowest price.
b. Culture: The internal office behaviors and even culture changed, as people did not have to account for every minute of work they did, collaboration between employees improved noticeably.
c. Business Model: It also allowed to further tailor their service offering to specific client segments, making it able to charge a premium for pre-developed standardized services leading to a significant increase in revenue and profitability.
The visualization of business models can be useful tools for organizations to reflect on how they create and capture value, but as business model visualizations become more comprehensive, they also become more complex. Given the goal of reducing complexity for organizational sense making, this evolution has furthered a gap between theory and practice. In this article, we distilled our experiences using business model visualizations in organizational context to identify useful revisions to business model visualizations to aid in organizational sense-making. In this article, we employ the metaphor of a prism to further refine the visualization of business models, with the goal of aiding organizations in their sense making.
The cornerstones of the PRISM framework consists of: products, process, and people. The interaction between the three elements result in three interacting dimensions within the organization: business models, value, and culture. At the center of the PRISM is the organizations’ purpose. Through time the PRISM becomes a three-dimensional shape with continued internal interactions between its business model, value, and its culture. In the context of organizations sensing, seizing, and transforming (Bocken et al., 2019), we posit that an organization can either: sustain (similar light, stability of lenses), endure (change in light, stability of lenses), enhance (similar light, changes in lenses), or amplify (change in light, changes in lenses).
PRISM encourages organizations to adopt an iterative process via the lenses of business models, value, and culture in a context through time. The purpose serves as an anchor for the development of the organization through time from which the dimensions can draw inspiration and direction from. A strong and clear purpose at the core becomes an essential element to ensure the stability of the organization over time and prevent the different lenses to cross. In Section 4, we illustrated how PRISM acted as a visual aid to organizations given their response to changes in their environment.
Our research contributes to helping close the gap between theoretical business model visualizations and the usefulness of these visualizations to reduce complexity in real-world organizational contexts. Further research is needed to understand the interaction between business model visualizations and the ability of organizations to sense make, both internally and in relation to the context in which they operate.
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