ERCIM News No.48, January 2002 [contents]

Towards a Virtual Coaching Service for SMEs in Developing Countries

by Sarra Ben Lagha, Alexander Osterwalder and Yves Pigneur

The information systems department (INFORGE) of the business school (HEC) of the University of Lausanne (UNIL) launched a project to develop an e-Business Model Handbook. If designed to be an openly accessible resource on the web and to contain illustrative case studies for typical business models in different contexts, this handbook can be a coaching service for small- and medium-sized enterprises in developing countries.

The key idea of the e-Business Model Handbook (eBMH) is that a repository and the associated computerised tool can significantly enhance the creativity and the efficiency of business model designers, particularly in small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs). Institutional and public players in developing countries could use such a tool as a virtual coaching service that gives special attention to the opportunities that arise out of the use of information technology (IT) and particularly the use of the Internet. These players would adapt the handbook to the country-specific environment by feeding it with illustrative case studies and outlining the national legal framework to exploit opportunities.

The first objective for this ongoing research is to propose a theoretical framework for defining, classifying, assessing, measuring and modelling business models. The second issue aims at deploying an empirical phase for describing, cataloguing, and analysing case studies illustrating typical business models. The third goal is to develop a computer-aided design tool for supporting the design, the assessment, the benchmarking, the critics, and the simulation of new business models (see Figure 1 for a general overview of this research).

The core of our ongoing research and the foundation for the eBMH is the development of an e-business model ontology or e-business model framework (eBMF). Just as any other ontology, this one shall explicitly specify the terms and concepts used in a specific domain – in our case the e-business model domain. To achieve this goal we rely on an extensive study of e-business and e-business model literature.

In our framework we identify the most important concepts in building in e-business models and show how these concepts are interrelated and rely on each other. We have divided our model into four principal components:

  • The products and services a firm offers, representing a substantial value to the customer, and for which he is willing to pay (ICT have theoretically opened up new opportunities for products and services for firms in developing countries).
  • The relationship a firm creates and maintains with the customer, in order to satisfy him, to create trust and to generate sustainable revenues (this element is particularly critical for firms operating in international export markets).
  • The infrastructure and the network of partners that are necessary in order to create value and to maintain a good customer relationship.
  • The financial aspects that can be found throughout the three former components, such as cost and revenue structures (see Figure 2 for the basic description of the eBMF).

Figure 1: General overview of the research.
Figure 1: General overview of the research.

Figure 2: The basic e-business model framework (eBMF).
Figure 2: The basic e-business model framework (eBMF).

To formalize the eBMF, we developed the eBML (electronic Business Models Markup Language). It is an XML grammar that represents the vocabulary of the framework and the relationships between the concepts. Many XML projects (xCBL, cXML,etc.) are developed to represent business processes. Since business processes are implementations of business models it makes sense to develop a new XML language to represent the eBM generated in the context of the eBMF and illustrated in the eBMH.

As explained above, the eBMF is the core and foundation for a number of ongoing projects in our research:

  • The e-business modelling language (eBML). An XML-based markup language, which formalises the eBMF and helps communicate and share business models among deciders, managers or other stakeholders.
  • The e-business model handbook (eBMH). A web-based tool that illustrates and explains the eBMF and uncovers the opportunities in the e-business domain.
  • An e-business model design tool, which helps business model designers rapidly design, adapt, assess and critic e-business models.
  • An e-business model simulation tool, which helps managers learn about the implications of their decisions in e-business model matters in a risk free environment.


Please contact:
Yves Pigneur, Ecole des HEC, Université de Lausanne, Switzerland
Tel: +41 21 692 3416