A small note on sustainability, business models and words …

Sustainability is an important aspect of digital library initiatives. Partly because they are often funded by grant or special monies, out of the mainstream of business as usual. For this reason, it is not surprising to see how much attention the topic has received.
Before coming to OCLC I worked for JISC in the UK. JISC provides shared services to UK higher and further education. An important part of this is its support for applied R&D in universities and colleges through its grant programmes. You can get a sense of the breadth and diversity of these programmes on the website.
You will also find guidance for what is called Exit and sustainability plans in the project management area of the site along with this note:

You must develop an exit/sustainability plan on what should happen to project outputs at the end of the project, and to explore which ones should be sustained further and how.

Another example of such attention is provided by the work of Ithaka S+R on Sustainability and revenue models for online academic resources. I discussed this in a previous blog entry: Entrepreneurial skills are not given out with grant letters. I noted one of the themes of the report as follows:

Third was the acknowledgement that projects may not naturally think of ‘value’ in business or commercial terms, and indeed there may sometimes be an antipathy to commercial enterprise. (This is not the only measure of ‘value’.) [ Entrepreneurial skills are not given out with grant letters]

I was reminded of this a while ago when somebody resisted the use of the expression ‘business model’ in a conversation about the ‘sustainability’ of a resource on the grounds that it was not a commercial or business activity. I suppose that an important part of this is resistance to the idea that financial metrics are the only measure of value.
That said, sustainability involves securing enough revenues to continue to operate, whatever type of organization is involved.
Turning to Wikipedia, I was quite surprised at how much emphasis the entry on business models put on profit. It usefully points to a working paper providing an literature review: The business model, theoretical roots, recent developments and future research [PDF]. Interestingly, this paper shows that the term business model really only became popular in the mid-1990s, perhaps influenced by the search for new business models in an Internet environment. They also note a lot of variety in definition.
Anyway, all of this is by way of introduction to a modest statement: it seems to me to be reasonable to say that ‘sustainability’ involves developing a viable business model.

3 thoughts on “A small note on sustainability, business models and words …”

  1. Well, I’m not sure that’s what the Blue Ribbon Task Force report on sustainability, co-chaired by your very own Brian Lavoie, actually said! Or at least, one has to take an extremely broad view of the term “business model” to make it work.
    To take a really extreme example, think of the sustainability of a meme. What’s the business model for “Ring-a ring-a roses”?
    To put it a bit more in our perspective, what’s the business model for Linux? (Perhaps there is one, but I doubt you’d find it easy to get agreement on it.)
    What’s the business model of a public library?
    I think sustainability is something like amassing sufficient support (in various forms including non-financial) from stakeholders who see direct or indirect benefits in the activity or resource, such that its near to medium term future is assured, and the possibility of a future stakeholder community continues. Or something like that!

  2. Clearly, most organisations are increasingly concerened with cost management, income generation and how they are going to sustain themselves in the coming years. I was interested to see the 2008 Sustainability and Revenue Models report cited – something we hope to review and update as our evidence base on indepth case studies over 2009-11 increases. We will be publishing a synthesis on the case studies trends and lessons learnt in June. Expect to see more from the JISC-led SCA in the coming year on this. Of equal merit is the Funders attitudes, policies and pactices on sustainability research due in June 2011. It is refreshing to see so much interest in this research from our funding partners – we have alot to learn from each other.

  3. Chris
    I think you are understanding ‘sustainability’ more broadly and ‘business model’ more narrowly than I am.
    Actually, it is interesting to see the number of results you get when you search on Linux and business model.
    I would say that public libraries have a business model – different in different parts of the world. One of the interesting things for me in the US is how public libraries can go directly to the electorate looking for support.

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