Digital platforms have transformed the way we connect with friends, family, colleagues, and businesses. That revolution has finally come to education, opening doors to collaboration, resource expansion, and school success. Better Together explores beyond disruption to show how the U.S. K-12 system is truly evolving. TOM VANDER ARK is an advocate for innovations in learning. As CEO of Getting Smart, he advises schools and impact organizations on the path forward. He previously served as the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and as a public school superintendent in Washington State. Tom is the author of the Jossey-Bass book Getting Smart . LYDIA DOBYNS is an advocate for transforming public education. She is President and CEO of New Tech Network (NTN), a leading design partner for comprehensive school change. NTN supports a nationwide K-12 school network comprised of 200 schools in 28 states. She has combined careers as a technology entrepreneur and executive, with elected public service and non-profit organization leadership roles.
NETWORK EFFECTS: When Bigger Is Better
As businesses grow, there are often negative consequences to customers, employees, and even the company itself. But when networks grow, there are many ways members can benefit. If Walmart gets a new customer, your benefit is negligible. When Facebook gets a new member, each of us has someone new to connect with or learn from-and the platform gets bigger and potentially better with each new user. Online gamers benefit from participation of other gamers. Both are examples of positive network effects-each new addition makes the platform better.
Large, well-managed platform communities produce significant value for each user. Value can be driven by the power of social networks ( can I connect, contribute, and get what I need? ), demand aggregation ( can I buy things? ), and application development ( can I build things? ).
Platforms promote exchanges of information, goods and services, and some form of currency. The ability to monetize that value exchange in some way is key to building a scalable and sustainable platform. Platforms are in the curation business; they match content and connections at scale. Most platforms use an algorithmic filter to screen out or deprioritize less valuable content. Filters and recommendations can help match participants with units of value.
"Network effects turn organizations inside out," claim the authors of Platform Revolution . That means users run the place. Platforms are like information factories that have no control over inventory. They just attract and match to facilitate value exchanges.
NETWORKS ARE BIG BUSINESS
A Wharton study of 1,500 organizations (using machine learning to scour big data sets) found four primary business models 1 :
Asset builders . Manufacturers, distributors, and retailers (WalMart, Ford, FedEx)
Technology creators . Biotech, healthtech and fintech (Microsoft, Oracle, Amgen)
Service providers . Consultants, bankers, educators, and lawyers (Aetna, JP Morgan, Accenture)
Network orchestrators . Social, business and financial (TripAdvisor, RedHat, Uber)
The study found that networks, on average, yield the highest growth, margins, and returns. According to study leader Barry Libert, "Network Orchestrators, which leverage intangible assets, and real time interactions, apply to all organizations regardless of industry."
Compared to asset builders that make things, service providers who sell hours, and tech providers who sell intellectual property, the study found a large performance differential for networks, which the authors called a Multiplier Effect , owing to the rules of network versus firm centric business models.
Networks bring people together (often called a two-sided revenue model) like credit cards (cardholders and merchants), operating systems (users and developers), recruitment sites (job seekers and recruiters), and marketplaces (buyers and sellers).
Networks often leverage co-creation and network assets (like cars, houses, friends, and insights) to perform better financially than organizations that sell hours or make stuff.
Network leaders even think and talk differently; they use words like platform, network, digital, and mobile to describe their firms and investment strategies, whereas "Asset Builder" leaders talk about plants, property, and equipment as their primary focus and investments.
When a school district gets bigger, it means more headaches-the organization does not necessarily get smarter. But when a personal learning network grows, there's a good chance it can get smarter, because it becomes more likely that another educator faced similar situations. And you gain access to hundreds of resources rather than dozens. When schools