Satu Nätti: Value creation should lie at the heart of digitalisation

Oulu Business School’s Professor of Marketing, Satu Nätti, shares her insights into customer value creation in the digital era, and how business research can take part in societal discourse and political decision-making.
Professor Satu Nätti
Satu Nätti is a Professor of Marketing at the Oulu Business School’s Department of Marketing, Management and International Business. She is also a member of the GenZ management board.

Company outsourcings as an early research inspiration

Satu Nätti is from Alajärvi, a town situated in Southern Ostrobothnia, Finland, and it was from there that she first moved to Oulu to study Business Administration at the University of Applied Sciences.

Although Nätti was initially trying to figure out how she would feel about having a career in business, she quickly gained an interest in her studies, thanks to her amazing teachers of the time. Wanting to expand her understanding of management even still, she decided to get a master’s degree in Marketing at the University of Oulu.

She graduated from university in 1999 and worked at a local company called POHTO in Oulu as a business trainer. While working there, Nätti gained even more interest in the phenomena surrounding business. Nätti explains that those were interesting times, because company outsourcings, even those concerning human resources and education affairs were becoming increasingly more common.

“I observed that this transition was difficult for expert organisations, as they had traditionally been the orchestrators of courses and services, but were now required to transition into a partnership mode and find new ways to collaborate with their partners,” Nätti explains.

Inspired by this emerging real-life challenge, Nätti went back to university as a doctoral researcher. The topic of her thesis was related to the combination of knowledge management, customer management and partnership-building.

Knowledge management is about knowing the customer

When asked about the definition of knowledge management, Nätti says that the term is multilayered, linking together marketing and management, concepts which in Nätti’s view should not be separated. The basic premise of knowledge management is that an organisation cannot flourish unless it knows its customer. If a company’s individual sales representatives know the customer, that alone is not enough – the organisation must have a full grasp of the customer information.

The so-called customer relationship management systems can be used to restore customer information, but the issue goes beyond information systems and data banks. Nätti explains that sometimes problems are encountered on these systems - problems which can be traced back to management and the incentives that employees might have regarding the company practices, management styles and cultural guidelines. The successful incorporation of customer information is therefore influenced by cultural norms – whether people are open to disseminating information on networks – as well as the organisation’s values and the deep-rooted, historically-bound practices.

Besides knowledge management, Nätti is also interested in other topics, including the orchestration of innovation networks, the effects of digitalisation on businesses and customer relationships, as well as organisational resilience – all of which link back to knowledge management in some ways.

Value creation should lie at the heart of digitalisation

As a researcher of marketing, Nätti emphasises that all things are essentially done for the customer. In other words, customers should gain value from the services provided to them.

Recently, Nätti and her colleagues have published an article about customer value creation within the Finnish public healthcare system. Together with her colleagues Professor Saila Saraniemi, Professor Pauliina Ulkuniemi and Associate Professor Hanna Komulainen, Nätti collected qualitative, interview data from people who were involved in the development of Finnish health and social services reform, which is soon to be enacted. Their data offered insights into the observations that the interviewees had made about customer value creation within the Finnish public health services.

Their data offered several interesting insights into value creation within health care, including, for instance, the processual nature of the healthcare services and aspects pertaining to customer diversity.

Nätti explains that the Finnish public healthcare system has still several prevailing structures that hamper value creation - such as the placement of a strong focus on treatment instead of supporting customers’ long-term well-being - and seeing patients as passive receivers of professional information. Structures such as these hinder the processual nature of the customers’ experiences in public healthcare services, and the long-term treatments turns into series of instances, which, for example, implies that patients see a different doctor each time that they book an appointment. In this way, the healthcare system fails to see its customers’ complex and unique cases in a holistic light.

Based on these insights, Nätti also explains that the Finnish public healthcare system is, to some extent, based on the idea that all customers are offered the same services in the same way. However, this approach is not cost-efficient nor supportive of value creation. For instance, a remote consultation with a doctor may work for some customers, while for others it fails to create value.

Therefore, Nätti’s collaborative research calls for the emphasis on human-centric starting points to be incorporated into the implementation of Finnish public healthcare - especially in light of digitalisation.

“Digitalisation should aid value creation; it should not have a value of its own– which is rarely the case when organisations undergo changes. We often forget that digitalisation is merely a tool to be used in value-creation, and instead, we start viewing it as a guide or as something that is automatically good,” Nätti elaborates.

Business research can contribute to political decision-making

Nätti thinks that the research on customer value creation in public healthcare has been one of the highlights of her research thus far. The reason lies in its societal impact.

“Our research shows that Marketing and Management research can very well take part in societal discourse. It has an impact outside of the commercial world,” Nätti comments.

The collaboration with her colleagues regarding this research has also been fruitful for Nätti. Having good chemistry among colleagues and a positive and respectful atmosphere in the research group brings motivation and energy to complete the research project at hand.

Nätti has also enjoyed a long-term collaboration with Piia Hurmelinna-Laukkanen, who is a professor and research unit director at the Marketing, Management and International Business unit in Oulu Business School. Nätti and Hurmelinna-Laukkanen have collaborated on research papers concerning innovation network orchestrations, for instance.

The GenZ project offers a good vantage point

Nätti says that the multidisciplinary GenZ project has offered her a good vantage point for seeing how the university of Oulu’s strategic profiling projects work. In addition to that, the GenZ project has opened her to new opportunities for interdisciplinary networking and projects. For example, Nätti’s research group has collaborated with the Learning and Educational Technology Research Lab (LET) regarding their Tiims project, which aims to develop a new kind of educational offering for the University of Oulu’s LeaF research infrastructure.

In general, the implementation of multidisciplinary research, in Nätti’s view, is often challenging, but the GenZ project offers a great outlet for doing such research, especially through the integration of the different themes; co-evolution, co-creation and resilience.

In the University of Oulu, Nätti also thinks that the GenZ project has been pioneering resilience research, and Nätti is hoping to continue with this theme even after the GenZ project ends. Impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic, resilience research has gained popularity, and Nätti is especially interested in organisational resilience, an angle which has been brought through in her work all the time.

The value of the GenZ project, as explained by Nätti, comes from the integration of human-centric perspectives into digitalisation.

“The development of new technologies is accelerating constantly, and I am worried about whether we will be able to keep up with it. It feels as though we are going towards something that we do not know yet enough about,” Nätti says.

“We as humans have basic needs, such as the need to belong. If we, for example, start spending more time in virtual realities, I am wondering whether we will be able to hold it all together,” she continues.

Nätti concludes the interview by expressing that more research on resilience in the digital world is needed, especially from the point of view of different groups, such as young people.

Last updated: 23.1.2023