Friday, February 6, 2009

Business Models: Learning from the Field

DCC2009 Business Models assignment: Learning from the Field in a design setting

Prof M P Ranjan

Image 01: Omlette-walla group with their visual presentation of the Ahmedabad street vendors who serve egg based food offerings.

Business Models are all around us and these are manifested in the form and structure of all the business that are active and working in the environment in which we all live and work. It is therefore possible for a sensitive designer to use their senses and the knowledge gleaned from the field to discover and articulate these into visible and invisible relationships through a process of observation, interaction, analysis, discourse and visualization based on which they could arrive at a new level of realisation about these. The particular business models that are embedded into each specific business that they wish to study in order to improve or compete with are laid bare in front of their eyes as the work progresses and they would then be able to explore alternatives to make these better or more effective as desired.

The assignments offered to the students deal with the intensive study of street food vendors in the field in Ahmedabad city using observation and interaction to gather insights about the particular vendor and his strategies as well as to look for more general situational characteristics and entrepreneurial behavior that helps the incumbent to succeed in a fairly hostile but opportunity rich environment of the city in need of certain types of services which are being addressed by the vendor in question. The students were assigned five types of street food vendors in Ahmedabad – The Omlette-wallah (Egg Omlette maker), The Bhajiya-walla (Fried Indian Snack), The Chai-walla (Tea vendor), The Pav Bhaji-wallah (Bread and Curry maker) and The Pani-Puri-walla (Fried Puri with liquid chutney) – and each group was required to study several live examples in the field in order to make a composite visualization of their insights that could be shared with the class at the end of this process.

Image 02: Bhajiya-walla group made a number of models to describe their understanding of the business models but their final offering was a paper model of the proposed hand cart which offered many new features and promised to solve many of the aspirations of the vendors as well as the imagined features that the group liked to provide to these vendors.

Here, when a design student is in learning mode, it is far easier to start with small and micro enterprises such as street food vendors who are easily accessible and can therefore be a very useful source of business learning and about a number of finer aspects of entrepreneurial behavior. Each of these micro businesses is indeed homologous to a huge multi-national business conglomerate in a similar line of business such as the ones involved in the preparation and delivery of food to their customers across several continents. The large and the small businesses all have to carry out much the same activities in much the same space in a city with the same collective audience but at a very different scale and reach but the components are all very similar.

Image 03: Chai-walla group showed the processes and relationships at the macro and the micro level of discourse and at the micro-level they used a literal flow of the liquid Chai – from cooking vessel to tea pot to tea cup and then to the mouth which is followed by the customers hand giving money to the maker who in turn uses the money to make more tea and make a profit in the process – a business process, all in one single flow…

Learning from the field is the way forward for designers who wish to work at the cutting edge of change and be able to shape the future with their insights and contributions. In real life too this would be the way they will have to work by gathering insights from the events and activities that are live and happening in their business space and with these insights they would be able to propose the new offerings that would go to the creation of the future landscapes around them. Design has moved forward from being focused on objects and spaces alone to include the business processes through which these objects, services and spaces are created and offered to the customers and managers too are now taking this area of design creation as an important part of their area of expertise.

Image 04: Pav Bhaji-walla group made a model of the street vendors cart using a table and a couple of bicycle wheels along with a few props as a backdrop for their skit which showed their understanding of the business models used by the vendor groups they had studied. The flow-charts in the background showed their understanding of these processes.

Another aspect of design learning that the assignment design has taken into consideration is that designers need to learn to work in teams and to collaborate with a large number of professionals from other fields of expertise. These group assignments that require the students to go outside the classroom and engage with public at large is an important element of design education that prepares them for the future where we would expect them to work in co-creation modes with stakeholders of their particular business and in doing so build the attitudes, abilities and knowledge that would help them perform at a high level of creativity in the rich matrix of our reality in urban and rural settings. This does imply that design education with these methods needs peace and security to be taken care of when the students move into the field, however we have had situations where student teams have had to confront with hostile reception due to various factors, some within their control and others which are not. However they need to be sensitized to these issues so that they can recognize any threat and take precautionary measures as may be needed while they are in the field.

Image 05: Pani Puri group made a meticulous model with a very well classified structure that showed their complex understanding of the business models and strategies followed by their street vendors, all supported by highly expressive renderings of each aspect of the structure and a flow of arrows that linked all these elements into a complete whole.

The kind of learning that happens in such a group interaction mode and in contact with the field is very rich with first hand experience and deep insights are formed in all the stages of the assignment, particularly at the stage of visualization and presentation since these are carried out in a reflective mode based on the real experiences in the field and not just on bookish information or on the internet download type of knowledge that is delivered by remote experts in a loaded form of professional jargon which may or may not be truly accessible to the student. After three days and nights in the field with their respective street vendors and a good deal of time back in the studio as a group to process all the field data into images and texts that made sense the students spent a full day in making presentations to each other and the teachers, all resulting in a great deal of learning for all concerned.
Prof M P Ranjan

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