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This chapter is a first contribution to the study of ICT application to improve BA environment.
The IOR4VAP model herein presented is a comprehensive framework for the analysis of the information requirements of BA activities. The roles and the descending relationships identified could be used by BAs to design ICT- supported applications.
Previous studies on BA came from organizational and institutional research, and little or no literature was found on ICT adoption within this context. Only recently has the research on the role of institutions in economic growth begun to highlight the activities of a BA and recognize its contributions. More attention to BAs has been given by organizational and industrial network studies, where IS research has been focusing on industrial districts (Micelli & Di Maria, 2000).
Despite the fact that ICT impacts on IO relationships are not questioned, the nature of these impacts is still not clear for two main reasons. On one hand, the IS literature has not yet come to a generally accepted understanding of ICT effects on relationships, and the literature is mainly based on the typical arguments of automation. On the other hand, even when considering the literature on “organizational models,” the main stress seems to be on efficiency and costs.
According to these approaches, a BA should adopt a VAP because of the deriving selective benefits of information in terms of decrease in information and transaction costs and locking of the members to the specific platform (a sort of lock-in as the exit from the VAP becomes costly).
Another issue that arises from the study is whether such benefits are sufficient to generate a real and sustainable competitive advantage. This question is even more difficult to answer: it is not clear if BAs can truly contribute to economic growth (Doner & Schneider, 2000) and if ICT can be a source of competitive advantage (Powell & Dent-Micallef, 1997). The monitoring of the 2Cities.com initiative and the study of other BAs could, in future works, fill these gaps.
Governance issues are not explicitly covered in this chapter despite the centrality in the literature regarding BAs and industrial districts. However, the VAP model is an extremely flexible approach, and it is sufficiently general to be applicable in heterogeneous BA environments or in situations characterized by the interaction of different agents.
Finally, authors acknowledge that another issue needs further investigation: the review of the technology used or usable to support the identified relationships. In fact, the chapter is focused on the analysis of information requirements, which is the step just before the identification or development of ICT applications supporting IO relationships.
Yet, considering these limitations, authors believe this study has a major implication for practitioners working in the BA environment. The proposed IOR4VAP framework is a global model for the definition of the information requirements for the design of a technological platform supporting its activities. In this perspective, it is a valid tool that allows a BA to better understand which relationships support and which information will be exchanged.
The significance of this model comes also from the fact that it meets two main requirements for a successful implementation. In fact, a VAP could be, at the same time, secure and trusted—like every service supplied by an association is generally considered (Bennett & Robson, 2001)—and effective, being developed on the specific requirements of the associate enterprises that should use it. Equally, the Virtual Association Platform complies with the current opinion that business associations have to redefine their strategies and expand their services. Associations should facilitate SMEs in those activities that cannot be accomplished by single organizations (i.e., logistic, procurement, internationalization, and technological innovation) and that, therefore, require IO relationships and a certain “critical mass.”
In this sense, the main achievement of the developed archetype is to be able to manage not only a specific type of IO relationship (many to many, many to few, etc.), like the solutions that have been found out in the market. Through the VAP, each member of the association and the association can relate at the same time with different organizations and for different aims—information exchange, request for quotations, supply-chain management, etc.—using just one simple interface.
However, as shown by the case example, it should not be taken for granted that a BA is willing to have a comprehensive platform supporting all information flows. Associations first try to support the more value-generating ones (informative and buyer/seller relationships) and then try to exploit community services, often not taking into account the inherent potential of a broader approach.
With respect to the software systems on the market, no “all in one” solution is available, yet. Supporting so many and different relations requires going beyond the current specialization level of commercial applications. Even the 2Cities VAP was custom designed and developed. Therefore, on the technological side, the success of this archetype will be measured by the ability of a VAP to integrate the existing applications or to develop an open platform integrating or exchanging information with the members’ current information systems.
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