Innovation has become a buzzword in business today, as new-product sales advantages so often flow from new designs or features. Think mobile phones, tablets, or even autos. But apart from product or service leaps, can innovation in the way a company conducts business give it a leg up? Research from Wharton management professor Raffi Amit and co-author Christoph Zott, a professor at IESE Business School in Barcelona, Spain, suggests that it can. In this Knowledge at Wharton interview, Amit covers the highlights of a research paper titled, “Business Model Innovation: Creating Value in Times of Change.” The authors note: “Business model innovation … relies on recombining the existing resources of a firm and its partners, and it does not require significant investments in R&D.”

An edited transcript of the conversation appears below.

The importance of business-model design:

Raffi Amit: My colleague, Chris Zott, and I started a research program that addresses the broad question of how firms do business, which is the business model. A business model is a system of activities that are interdependent and that create value for the stakeholders of the firm. For example, in the old days, Apple designed the hardware, either produced or assembled some of the hardware, and then sold it. The value equation was to the sale of hardware.

Enter the iPod, which was a profound change in Apple’s business model, because the company realized it can create value for stakeholders not just by selling a gadget which is nicely designed, but also through the use of the gadget. So, Apple, in introducing the iPod, profoundly changed its business model by having a relationship with the music industry, the owners of the intellectual property to the various songs, and convincing those studios to sell by the song, not by the CD. Then through an electronic store, iTunes, [Apple] enabled people to download selected music. Each time a song was downloaded, Apple got a share of the proceeds, and therefore … it created value for the customer, for Apple’s shareholders and obviously for its employees.

“Innovation is not limited to the innovation of product [but also includes] innovation of the very way a company engages in business.”

The business model is a description of how the firm does business, and it is a system of activity. When Apple introduced the iPod, new activities were added, and the value that was created by this modified business model was enhanced because there were new stakeholders. Note that the stakeholders span both firm and industry boundaries. Who would think a computer company would be in the music business? And suddenly Apple was literally in the music business.

Over the years, Chris Zott, who is now at IESE Business School in Barcelona, Spain, and I have addressed a number of issues that relate to the business model. For example, what are the elements of a business model? What are activities that decide the content? What is the structure? How are those activities combined to create the system and, as importantly, the governance of the business model?

Who carries out each activity? We ask the questions, “How does the business model create value? What are the fundamental value drivers in the business model?” That’s where we created the so-called NICE business model, which stands for: Novelty, Lock-in, Complementaries. These are the fundamental value drivers. We asked managers to ask themselves, “Is our business model NICE?”

There’s another aspect, and that’s the process by which companies go through the business model’s design. Much of the work that’s been done so far focused on the content of what a business model is, or how the business model creates value and so on. But very little work has been done on how organizations design the business model. How do they modify it? And this applies to early-stage organizations — new startups — and to established organizations.

Once you think about what do managers do — obviously they have to lead their organizations and develop the strategies — how are they going to compete? The business model answers a different question. How are we going to do business? So, that’s the essence of our research program.

Key conclusions:

Our research on the process of designing a business model established that, by building on the methodology that was adopted for the purpose of product design by IDEO — which is a leading design company in the Bay Area on the West Coast — and in applying it to the design of the business model, we developed a five-phase process that’s embedded in the understanding of the antecedent for the design of the business model.

Some of the work we’ve done has established that when a company designs its business model, it doesn’t do it in a vacuum. It has to do it by considering a number of antecedents. For example, what’s the goal of the business model? [The answer is] one antecedent. What are some of the templates that other companies have been using? And to some extent thoughtfully and mindfully adopting some of those templates is another antecedent.

[We also looked at] understanding who are the stakeholders of the organization that would benefit from that business model. [Further, we looked at] constraints — whether these are financial, human capital, regulatory or any other type of constraints that would affect what the firm can and cannot do for any one of the reasons I just mentioned.

Once these antecedents are acknowledged and communicated, then there’s a process that we suggest in the research paper that involves five steps. First, to observe … a little bit of an ethnographic study — how people use your product or your service. What do they like and not like? When and how do they use it? Who uses it? Who makes the buying decision, and how is that decision made? So, a lot of observation is involved.

Then there’s a phase of synthesis — taking all of the information you observed and pulling it together. Then there’s a point of generating some product-type business model. [You can] say, “This is one idea of how we do business. Here’s another idea of how we do business, and let’s compare them.” [The fourth step is to] refine the model as you think about it more vigorously and more definitively. The last phase is implementation.

That cycle — observation, synthesis, generation, refinement and implementation — should be an ongoing process. It’s not the starting point. It’s a dynamic process in which the firm never sits still and says, “This is how we do business, and we work in silos.” Our main observation here is the need for people in the organization to think in a holistic way — not to think in silos — to take a broader view of the organization, not just of the activities in which they are involved. And that, we believe based on the research we’ve done, will create value for all stakeholders.

“Design doesn’t just apply to product design. It applies very much to the design of how firms do business.”

In fact this process paper is an attempt to journalize our past research that focused on emerging companies. This was our attempt to move from focusing and empirically examining young emerging-growth companies to focusing on … large, global, diversified companies.

What current business events are relevant in light of this research?

What are the implications of not adopting a process of continuously updating and revising your business model? I’d like to give two examples.

Look at a company like Blackberry, which dominated the smart phone industry in government, business and among consumers. Blackberry almost became a verb in American society. Even the President of the United States used a Blackberry. But Blackberry stuck to a particular way of doing business and ignored the changes that were happening in telecommunications, in the ability of wireless networks to transmit videos and other graphical information. Executives did not adapt the company’s business model. Today, Blackberry is in decline, and according to some, on the verge of bankruptcy.

Another example of a company that has not adapted its business model is Nokia. At one point it was by far the largest marketer of handsets for wireless communication. Nokia has since disposed of its handset business, and it declined to a very small percentage of the global number of handsets that have sold. It’s been taken over by the likes of Samsung, Apple, HTC and others.

A concrete example of a company that totally transformed itself by transforming its business model is IBM. Historically, IBM was a product-centered company. It sold computers, disk drives, tape drives, a number of boxes. Today, the vast majority of IBM revenue comes from services where the products are not a means to an end, but are a means to deliver the services.

That’s a profound transformation of how IBM does business. Today, the most profitable part of the company is not the boxes, but the services. The largest fraction of IBM’s revenue comes from services. So, IBM is a good example of a global, multi-national, large and diversified firm that has undertaken a profound updating or revision of its historical business model and, as such, enabled it to stay on top.

How does this research stand apart from other studies?

We believe we are the first to focus exclusively on the process of business model innovation. There has been a realization that business model innovation matters. But before we did this study, no one had really vigorously looked at the process of how you innovate a business model. And that’s where we believe our main contribution lies.

Two main takeaways for business:

First, the need to apply design thinking to the design of the business model. Traditionally, design thinking has been applied to the design of products. What we’ve established through this research project is that the process by which firms design the business model can, in and of itself, create enormous value.

The second takeaway is that firms need to develop a capability to continuously ask themselves how to tweak their business models, how to refine and revise them. This is an organizational capability that needs to become part of a firm’s DNA. The business model needs to change as the environment in which the firm competes changes. There [needs to be] a realization that each and every member of the organization needs to look at: “Are we still doing business in a way that maximizes the value creation potential?”

“The process by which firms design the business model can, in and of itself, create enormous value.”

The answer, therefore, is that designing the business model is no longer just a job that the CEO has to do. Each and every member has to ask: “In the activities that I’m involved in, is there another way to do this activity? How do the activities that I’m involved in relate to other activities that are going on in our firm that create value for our stakeholders?” And when I talk about stakeholders, there are obviously the customers of the firm, the partners, owners, employees and managers — to pick a few stakeholders. All of them need to be considered in thinking through the design of the business model.

So, these are the two main takeaways. Design doesn’t just apply to product design. It applies very much to the design of how firms do business. And secondly, this has to be a continuous activity that becomes part of a firm’s DNA.

Surprises that came out of the research:

On one hand, the impact of the business model’s design on the firm’s performance has been substantial, greater than what I would have anticipated. But what surprised me most is how rare it is in the organizations that we surveyed and talked to where the process of designing the business model is part of the firm’s DNA.

Very few organizations routinely think, “How can we tweak our business model? How can we find a better, more efficient, greater value-creating business model?” That surprised me, and I think that managers and organizations more generally would benefit by thinking deeper about the design and thinking about it not as a one-time or once in two years thinking, “Is there a better way?” — but as an ongoing, dynamic capability that the firm has.

And it’s up to the leadership of the company to instill that kind of design thinking into the DNA of the firm. And the fact that this is rare was a surprise to me.

Misperceptions dispelled:

The perception is that innovation is about product innovation. And what our study attempts to show is that innovation is not limited to the innovation of product [but also includes] innovation of the very way a company engages in business, how it interacts with its stakeholders, how the various activities are connected to each other. Who carries out each of the activities?

Because in business models in today’s environment — where there have been enormous advances in information and communication technologies — companies are involved in activities that are carried out by other companies. And that’s very much part of the business model of how a modern corporation operates today.

I can give you a lot of examples of how the business model of Amazon relies on UPS delivering the products that people buy from it. And Amazon doesn’t produce or stock most of the products it sells. They’re just drop-shipped from another company. So, the business model of Amazon involves companies and activities that are happening outside of the boundaries of Amazon — outside of the industries it’s in.

There are companies where the entire innovation is how they do business. Take Priceline, which has revolutionized travel. Rather than you going to the website of any airline and looking at the menu of what it has to offer, it’s just the opposite. You say, “I want to travel from A to B, and I’m willing to pay X dollars to travel, and, you airline, make me an offer.”

It’s kind of a reverse auction in some sense. But in many ways, it’s a way to create value — for the airline to dispose of seats it hasn’t sold, because if it flies an empty seat, it makes no money. So, everybody wins. This is a value-creating business model, and there’s no product there. With eBay, there are no products, right? The business model is where the value creation is.

What’s next?

We’re engaged in a fairly massive effort of collecting data to address a related question, and that is focusing on large companies and how the business models evolved side by side with the organizations — the people, the incentives. That’s because a business model focuses on what activities the firm is engaged in, in order to create value, and how that system of activities creates value, how it’s connected, who does it. But there are other elements of the organizations that need to be looked at. And that’s how we see ourselves in the next phase of this research program which, as I said, we started over 15 years ago.