Unveiling the Janus face of the business model
29th Research in Entrepreneurship and Small Business Conference
PETRI AHOKANGAS, University of Oulu, Oulu Business School
IRINA ATKOVA, University of Oulu, Oulu Business School
Even though the extant literature on business models acknowledges the importance of the
surrounding context and involved actors, as well as recognizes the need to elaborate on the
dynamic nature of the business model concept, there is no coherent approach that would allow
doing so. By utilizing the action perspective, this conceptual paper aims to refine and expand the
notion of business model so as to account for the conceptual dynamism, role of actors and
surrounding context. This approach enlarges our understanding of the business model concept
by not only accounting for the “what” and “why” sides of business but also by unveiling the
management side of the concept, i.e. the “how” side of business.
Key words: Business model, action research, management model, four territories of experience.
Ubiquitous, multivalent, multipurpose, ambiguous and therefore, widely debated in the
academia—as well as among practitioners—the concept of business models has been already
addressed in more than a thousand of peer-reviewed articles, and counting (Baden-Fuller &
Morgan 2010; Zott et al. 2011). However, the question of what a business model really is still
remains unanswered (Zott & Amit 2013). Among others, business model has been
conceptualized as “flows” of information and resources (Timmers 1998), a static blueprint,
recipe for firm activities that incorporate organizational design and strategy (Slywotzky & Wise
2003), facilitative intermediary in the opportunity-creation process (Peltoniemi & Vuori 2005),
logic of value creation and capture (Shafer et al. 2005; Teece 2010), cognitive map (Chesbrough
2010), structure, architecture or framework of the business (Teece 2010; George & Bock 2011;
Mason & Palo 2012).
Generally, extant research discusses two dominating approaches towards business models:
essentialist and instrumental (Doganova & Eyquem-Renault 2009, Jensen 2013). Essentialists
view business model as a “description”, “representation”, “blueprint” of reality. From the
instrumental (Doganova & Eyquem-Renault 2009) or transformational perspective (Demil &
LeCocq 2010), business model is a tool possessing explicative and predictive power with regard
to the value created by a venture (Amit & Zott 2001), as well as a method to address change
and innovation in the organization or in the model itself (Demil & LeCocq 2010). In other words,
functionalist view approaches business model as forward-looking and being able to envisage
Essentialist approach implies static understanding of a business model concept whereas
instrumental suggests a more dynamic approach. Contrary to approaching business models as
static representation of reality, McGrath (2010: 248) emphasizes that business model “is a job
that is never quite finished” implying that business model development involves
experimentation, discovery and learning along the process. Similarly, Demil and LeCocq (2010)
maintain that dynamism is an essential feature of a business model concept revealed through
interactions between and within the core model components. According to the authors,
business model sustainability can only be achieved by constantly refining and adopting a
business model to its environment. Likewise, by asking what business model do rather than
what business model are, Doganova & Eyquem-Renault (2009) conceptualize business model as
“market devices” that facilitate the emergence of the innovation networks through circulating
“narratives” and “calculations”.
Application of the business model concept at the different levels of analysis—industry, firm,
business, or entrepreneur—adds up to the ambiguity of the concept (Amit & Zott 2001;
Osterwalder et al. 2005; Nenonen & Storbacka 2010). Early conceptualizations discuss the
business model phenomenon largely in terms of a network to explain how back then new types
of Internet-based businesses generated profit. In the exemplary definition by Timmers (1998)
business model is viewed as a description of different roles of network actors and product,
service and information flows between them. At the network level, i.e. level of market,
industry, strategy, of concern is an overall direction, competitive advantage, sustainability and
interaction across organizational boundaries (Morris et al. 2005).
As the idea of the business model became more widely adopted, it has come to be applied
mainly at the firm level (Mason & Spring 2011). At the firm level, i.e. at the level of operations,
the focus is either solely on the logic of profit generation or more broadly on the infrastructure
and processes enabling value creation. However, it is not problematic to equate firm level and
business level as many firms employ or experiment with multiple parallel business models
(Brown & Gioia 2002).Yet, the level of an individual entrepreneur—or manager—responsible
for the business model tends to be ignored with the exception of those definitions that
approach business model concept from the cognitive perspective. However, these definitions
are largely concerned with the cognitive representation of reality; they consider business
models as happening exclusively in the minds of entrepreneurs without moving onto the level
of practice, the level of actions. In other words, the majority of the definitions restrict
themselves either to an individual, enterprise or network. However, expanding the scope of
business model definitions to include not only the firm/business and network levels but also the
level of entrepreneurial or managerial, also group-level, actions can generate new insights for
academics and managers alike (Mason & Spring 2011).
Even though there are some attempts to understand the dynamic side of business models (cf.
McGrath 2010, Demil & LeCocq 2010, Sosna et al. 2010), the action perspective has not yet
been elaborated in the extant research, which is rather paradoxical for the phenomenon
defined by the entrepreneurial action. No action—no business models (Shane 2003).
Additionally, it is often emphasized that a business model needs to be calibrated to the external
environment (Teece 2010), however, the relationship between business model and business
context remains vague in the extant research. The above discussion reflects some of the
antecedents and criticisms of the vagueness identified in business model research field (Teece
2010; Zott et al. 2011). Therefore, we confront the above described questions here by utilizing
the action perspective. The action perspective allows accounting for the dynamic nature of the
business models, as well as revealing the interaction between a business model and its
surrounding context. Thus, the research question this article addresses can be formulated as
How can the concept of business model be refined and expanded so as to account for the
conceptual dynamism, role of actors, as well as surrounding context?
This article aims to contribute to the discussion on the business model concept by approaching
it from the action perspective. We begin by reviewing the generally accepted principles in the
extant literature on business models. We continue by introducing our approach. We conclude
by mapping a framework for the expanded understanding of the business model concept from
the action perspective and discussing managerial and theoretical implications.
BUSINESS MODELS IN CURRENT LITERATURE
In the extant literature business model concept has been approached from multiple
perspectives forming various streams of research. Despite this diversity, understanding of the
business model concept displays consistent progress from an idea to a concept and finally to a
model. Business model as an idea can be viewed as belonging to the first generation of the
business model conceptualizations: what a company offers, to whom and how. From this
perspective, business model consists of the set of assumptions or beliefs about what is
important to achieve consonance with the environment and succeed. Drucker refers to it as
“assumptions about what a company gets paid for” (Drucker 1994: 96).
Understanding business model as a conceptual tool (Osterwalder et al. 2005) marks the
transition towards the second generation of the business model definitions. The major
difference of the business model conceptualizations belonging to the second generation is that
they go beyond the hypothesis level.
The definition proposed by Magretta (2002) paved the way for the third generation of the
business model conceptualizations—conceptualizations centered around the value proposition.
According to Nielsen and Lund (2014), bringing in the aspect of value influenced substantially
the existing thinking. In the third generation of business model definitions, value creation and
value capture processes, or value network as a whole, represent the basis of the business
model conceptualizations (Timmers1998; Hamel2000; Afuah & Tucci 2001; Weill & Vitale 2001;
Rayport & Jaworski 2002; Van Der Vorst et al. 2002; Hedman & Kalling 2003). Yet, neither value
creation, nor value capture is possible without a business opportunity. Attention towards
business model phenomena was in the first place preconditioned by the opportunities for new
Internet ventures and the need to explain how sustained value can be generated (Demil et al.
2015). In other words, an opportunity is a basis for value creation and capture. In turn,
opportunity exploration and exploitation involves designing and implementing a business
model (George & Bock 2011; Zott & Amit 2010; Teece 2010; McGrath 2010; Ahokangas &
Myllykoski 2014). Adopting this logic, the fourth generation of the business model
conceptualizations revolves around the concept of business opportunity emphasizing the
linkages between opportunities and business models.
The recent stream of research builds on cognition and design thinking employing creative
rather than descriptive approach (Chesbrough 2010; Doz & Kosonen 2010; Baden-Fuller &
Mangematin 2013; Amit & Zott 2015; Martins et al. 2015; Osiyevskyy & Dewald 2015).
Additionally, the aspects of context, agency and actors’ intentions are taken into consideration.
Therefore, we propose to call the recent developments in this stream of business model
research as cognition-centric - the fifth generation of business model conceptualizations.
However, this approach does not address the concept of time as a contextual factor or
coherent futures thinking. Table 1 illustrates the evolution of the business model concept.
The latest research stream emphasizes the future orientation of the business model concept
(Chesbrough 2010, Zott & Amit 2010; Teece 2010), yet the existing conceptualizations of the
business model phenomena do not reflect it. Therefore, we suggest that the next-generation of
business model conceptualizations could emphasize foresight-centrism both in practice and in
Table 1. Evolution of the business model concept.
“Business model concept is a powerful idea for strategic thinking and strategic research, and
allows us to shift focus from pre-occupation with the resources a firm has, to the use to which
those resources are put” (p.260).
“A conceptual tool that contains a set of elements and their relationships and allows expressing
a company’s logic of earning money. It is a description of the value a company offers to one or
several segments of customers and the architecture of the firm and its network of partners for
creating, marketing and delivering this value and relationship capital, in order to generate
profitable and sustainable revenue streams” (p.15).
Morris et al. (2005)
“A concise representation of how an interrelated set of decision variables in the areas of venture
strategy, architecture, and economics are addressed to create sustainable competitive
advantage in defined markets” (p. 727).
Osterwalder et al.
“Business model is a blueprint of how a company does business” (p. 4).
“Business model is a scale model of a new venture, which aims at demonstrating its feasibility
and worth to the partners whose enrolment is needed” (p.1568).
“Business models can be found as exemplar role models that might be copied, or presented as
nutshell descriptions of a business organization…equivalent to scale models”(p.167).
et al. (2002)
“A business model is the architecture of a firm and its network of partners for creating,
marketing and delivering value and relationship capital to one or several segments of customers
in order to generate profitable and sustainable revenue streams” (p. 7).
“Business models are, at heart, stories that explain how enterprises work. A good business
model answers Peter Drucker’s age-old questions: Who is the customer? And what does the
customer value? It also answers the fundamental questions every manager must ask: How do we
make money in this business? What is the underlying economic logic that explains how we can
deliver value to customers at an appropriate cost?” (p. 87).
Shafer et al. (2005)
“A representation of the underlining core logic and strategic choices for creating and capturing
value within a value network” (p. 202).
“A business model performs two important functions: value creation and value capture. First, it
defines a series of activities, from procuring raw materials to satisfying the final consumer, which
will yield a new product or service in such a way that there is net value created throughout the
various activities. Second, a business model captures value from a portion of those activities for
the firm developing and operating it” (p.12).
Johnson et al.
“A business model consists of a number of interlocking elements that, taken together, create and
deliver value” (p. 52).
Zott & Amit (2010)
“A system of interdependent activities that transcends the focal firm and spans its boundaries.
The activity system enables the firm, in concert with its partners, to create value and also to
appropriate a share of that value” (p. 216).
“A business model articulates the logic and provides data and other evidence that demonstrates
how a business creates and delivers value to customers” (p.173).
Amit & Zott (2001)
“A business model depicts the design of transaction content, structure, and governance so as to
create value through the exploitation of business opportunities” (p.493).
Zott & Amit (2007)
“Business model depicts the content, structure, and governance of transactions designed so as
to create value through the exploitation of business opportunities. A business model elucidates
how an organization is linked to external stakeholders, and how it engages in economic
exchanges with them to create value for all exchange partners” (p.181).
George & Bock
“…the design of organizational structures to enact a commercial opportunity” (p.99).
“Business model is a cognitive map of business logic” (p.361).
Doz & Kosonen
“Business models stand as cognitive structures providing a theory of how to set boundaries to
the firm, of how to create value, and how to organize its internal structure and governance” (p.
“…cognitive instruments that embody important understanding of causal links between
traditional elements in the firm and those outside” (p. 418).
There are several basic principles that are commonly accepted among the scholars within the
business model research stream. First, business model is acknowledged as a new boundary-
spanning unit of analysis able to bridge individual, firm and industry levels offering a holistic
picture of how to “do business” (Zott et al. 2011: 20). Whereas strategic management scholars
are predominately concerned with the organizational performance, i.e. value capture and
competitive advantage at the firm level, entrepreneurship scholars by focusing on
entrepreneur-opportunity nexus try to explain how value is created. Therefore, viewing
business model as a boundary spanning unit of analysis allows considering both sides of the
coin - value creation and value capture mechanisms – accounting for various levels of analysis
(Demil et al. 2015). “How to do business” implies the activity system perspective, i.e. “a system
that is made up of components, linkages between the components, and dynamics” (Afuah &
Tucci 2000: 4). In the activity system, choices aimed at seeking consistency between the
components play an important role (Casadesus-Masanell & Ricart 2010, Demil & LeCocq 2010).
Second, business models are predominantly conceptualized in a broader way as the value
creation and value capture logic (Amit & Zott 2001; Afuah & Tucci 2001; Chesbrough &
Rosenbloom 2002; Shafer et al. 2005; Teece 2010; Ahokangas & Myllykoski 2014). Value
creation and value capture are inextricably linked (Demil et al. 2015). Brandenburger and Stuart
(1996) illustrate this with a model where the total created value equals the sum of values
captured by the customer, the focal firm, and its supplier. Accordingly, Chesbrough (2007:12)
contends that a “business model performs two important functions: value creation and value
capture. First, it defines a series of activities, from procuring raw materials to satisfying the final
consumer, which will yield a new product or service in such a way that there is net value
created throughout the various activities. Second, a business model captures value from a
portion of those activities for the firm developing and operating it”. Additionally, Demil et al.
(2015) emphasize that sources of value creation are inherent in the business model itself. Even
though the extant discussion on the business models draws attention to the lack of common
perspective and shared understanding, value creation and value capture appear to be the core
elements in the majority of the definitions (Ahokangas & Myllykoski 2014).
Third, business model is about exploring and exploiting opportunities and subsequent
competitive advantage (Zott & Amit 2010, Teece 2010, McGrath 2010). Business models are
not conceivable without an opportunity as a primary function of a business model is to exploit
opportunities (Zott & Amit 2010). Discovery, evaluationand exploitation of opportunities fuel
the emergence and growth of business ventures (Mueller et al. 2012). In other words, a
business model is centered around a business opportunity which represents a business model
nexus (George & Bock 2011). Therefore, business models can be regarded as opportunity-
centric. Exploitation and exploration are two interconnected and mutually reinforcing
processes: exploration or seeking opportunities and competitive advantage leads to
exploitation of opportunities and competitive advantage through learning and experimentation
(Ahokangas & Myllykoski 2014). Additionally, as a forward-looking managerial tool (Zott et al.
2011) used for planning, communication and mapping for the future operations due to its
dynamic characteristics, a business model can be seen as a means for exploring and exploiting
future opportunities and competitive advantages (Zott & Amit 2010; Teece 2010; Chesbrough
Fourth, business model is argued to be able to bridge the abstract strategic theorization to the
practical level of actions, i.e. to act as a practical implementation of strategy aspirations and
outcomes (Richardson 2008; Alt & Zimmerman 2001). For instance, Shafer et al. (2005: 203)
admit that business model assists in strategy implementation by facilitating analysis, testing,
and validation of a firm’s strategic choices, yet business model “is not in itself a strategy”. Also
Morries et al. (2005) and Nenonen and Storbacka (2010) understand business model as
realization of strategic choices. Along the same lines Tikkanen et al. (2005) theorize about the
relationship between the concept of business model and strategy. According to the authors,
“the function of the strategy is to give meaning and direction to the development of the
company’s business model.” (Tikkanen et al. 2005: 793). Zott and Amit (2008) differentiate
between novelty-centered and efficiency-centered business models. They advocate that a
business model can be a source of competitive advantage, and business model can be
integrated into or separated from the company's selected product market strategy. In other
words, the authors view the concepts as complementary. Wikström et al. (2010: 839) see
business model as “a critical link between strategy and operations in the organizational entity.”
In other words, business model allows for designing and organizing of activities necessary to
achieve strategic plans. In the similar vein, Richardson (2008) considers business model as a
framework necessary for the strategy implementation.
The above presented conceptualizations of the relationship between strategy and business
model consider strategy as giving impetus to the development of business models where
business model is focused on the activities aimed at creating value for the customers and other
stakeholders; whereas strategy – on the competitive positioning (Magretta 2002, Seddon et al.
2004, Wikström 2010). Yet, Venkatraman and Henderson (1998) view business model as
foregoing strategy. They explain that business model is a coordinated plan to design strategy so
as to achieve harmony along three vectors - customer interaction, asset sourcing, and
knowledge leverage supported by a powerful, integrated IT platform (Venkatraman &
The above principles generally relate to the form and content, the “what” and “why” parts of
the business (Zott et al. 2011, Birkinshaw & Goddard 2009). Yet, alongside with the commonly
accepted principles, there is a number of “black boxes” in the business model research filed
associated with the business model concept.
Aaltonen et al. (2004) discuss the organizational architecture of an organization (strategy -
structure, goals - approved performance). Birkinshaw and Goddard (2009: 82) emphasize that
management model of a company, i.e. “the choices made by a company’s top executives
regarding how they define objectives, coordinate activities and allocate resources; in other
words, how they define the work of management”, is as important for the firm’s operations as
business model. However, organizations are often unaware of the management model they
deploy. We argue that this can be attributed to the fact that management model is a part of
business model. How then to make visible the inherent features of a business model? The
territories of experience approach elaborated by Torbert (1991) and Meyer (2003) allows
viewing the concept of business model as a coherent whole allowing to discern the aspects that
has not been previously discussed.
The four territories of experience include: 1) the outside world, 2) one’s own sensed behavior
and feeling, 3) the realm of thought, and 4) the realm of vision/attention/intention (Torbert
1972). Essentially, these territories describe the areas that are being activated in performing
any action with learning and development occurring when shifting between the territories.
From the action perspective, the business model concept is about parallel practices of visioning,
strategizing, performing and assessing that build on the above described territories of
experience. This approach highlights the role of agency and context in business model.
Ahokangas & Myllykoski (2014: 12) state that “visioning is concerned with the long-term
intentions, futures, purposes, and aims of the business; strategizing with planning and
implementing the content and process of the business model; performing with doing business
with the business model; and assessing with the observed consequences and effects of action.”
Visioning process essentially means imaging preferable futures. In other words, it is about
aligning the actor’s intentions with the business model content. Being dynamic, emergent and
forward-looking, business models are naturally connected to the future representing an
important way for exploring and exploiting future opportunities (Chesbrough 2010, Teece
2010). Strategizing implies modelling the ways to achieve the vision (Meyer 2003, McGrath
2010) – planning the actions to connect the abstract-level strategy content with practice. If
visioning can deal with a variety of alternative opportunities, strategizing requires focusing on a
specific opportunity that is shaped into a business model. An opportunity choice is highly
dependent on the surrounding context, as well as on the entrepreneurial experience. At the
performing stage, the choices are enacted and tested against business context. During the
assessing process, the feedback received from the actions is analyzed and reflected upon. At
this stage the initial intents are evaluated against the context and adjusted if necessary. Taken
together, performing and assessing phases illuminate the process of experiential learning.
Utilizing the territories of experience approach, it is revealed that the extant business model
literature has not fully addressed such important business model-related aspects as agency,
context, process dynamics and learning. To elaborate our case, we present some quotes from
active managers as an illustration. Figure 1 (below) depicts the highlights of the following
First, business models lack agency, only entrepreneurial actions allow for their actualization.
Yet, even though business models have been directly or indirectly related to the activity
systems (Afuah 2004; Hedman & Kalling 2003), processes (Alt & Zimmerman 2001, Morris et al.
2005) or transactions (Amit & Zott 2001), the problem of agency has not been addressed within
the business model research. Only business model related choices and consequences have
attracted some scholarly interest (McGrath, 2010). This can be partially attributed to the lack of
the suitable approach. However, the emergence of the action research and action learning
based discussion has allowed accounting for the experience and roles of entrepreneurs in the
business model context. Consider the following statement given by a board member of a
broadcasting technology company:
“...I am continuously balancing between the owners’, boards’ and acting
managers’ roles and responsibilities regarding our business model, and especially
how it should be developed. To what degree should I intervene or contribute, and
how? To what degree and how I am personally responsible for our stockholders
over our business model…?”
As described before, business model is acknowledged as a new boundary-spanning unit of
analysis able to bridge individual, firm and industry levels offering a holistic picture of how to
“do business” (Zott et al. 2011: 20). From the action perspective, viewing business model as a
unit of analysis refers to switching attention between practices of visioning, strategizing,
performing and assessing. Whereas “boundary-spanning” emphasizes the parallel and mutually
reinforcing nature of the practices and process dynamics. Visioning can be understood as
content expressed in a form of actor’s intentions. Strategizing allows for connecting actor’s
intentions with the practical level, while performing refers to the contextualized actions aimed
at value creation and value capture. Assessing involves evaluation of actor’s intentions against
Second, recent developments in the business model conceptualization emphasize the need for
continuous business model transformation to accommodate the changes in the competitive
situation (Achtenhagen et al. 2013; Doz & Kosonen 2010). A CEO and co-founder of a
visualization technology company pondered the following:
“…we intent to grow by entering new customer segments, but it is difficult to
know how to do it even though we are stretching across our value chain toward
the end customer. We are embracing new contexts and spanning across
boundaries and have to come up with and test new elements in our business
In other words, calibration of a business model to the surrounding context on a constant basis
is an essential prerequisite for the business model sustainability – a company runs a risk to fail if
it clings to the habitual forms of operation. However, the importance of the business context
and the need for a business model to be calibrated accordingly, though recognized (cf.
Ardichivili et al. 2003; Teece 2010), has not been paid much attention to in the current
research. The extant literature does not provide any conceptualization or approach that would
explicitly account for the business context. Yet, value creation and value capture as the basic
logic behind business model concept are highly dependent on the external environment (Amit
& Zott 2001; Afuah & Tucci 2001; Chesbrough & Rosenbloom 2002; Shafer et al. 2005; Teece
2010; Ahokangas & Myllykoski 2014).
Third, business model is about exploring and exploiting opportunities and subsequent
competitive advantage which is frequently associated with uncertainty – any decision or action
impacts the business model, yet the outcomes cannot be precisely predicted as business
models dynamically evolve over time (Zott & Amit2010; Teece 2010; McGrath 2010). Even
though it is recognized that business models are not static but rather dynamic phenomena
(Doganova & Eyquem-Renault 2009; Demil & Lecocq 2010), the dynamic perspective has not
been fully developed, although it has been characterized that the business models is a job
never quite finished (McGrath 2010). Again, we quote the CEO and co-founder of the
visualization technology company:
“… the question is which opportunities to pursue. I wish I knew in advance what
opportunities I should avoid… but you only learn that from experience. And then
we have to change something again in the business model…”
Fourth, practical implementation of strategy, i.e. performing, naturally involves experimenting,
trial and error and subsequent learning (Chesbrough 2010; McGrath 2010; Morris et al. 2005;
Teece 2010). Similarly, McGrath (2010: 248) contends that “…business models often cannot be
fully anticipated in advance. Rather, they must be learned over time, which emphasizes the
centrality of experimentation in the discovery and development of new business models.” In
other words, business model concept is inseparable from experiential learning. However, to
date no coherent experiential learning perspective onto the business models has been
Figure 1. Janus face of the business model
“…every strategy needs to be implemented, and so does also every business
model. And, there we need people, managers and organization that act and
operate in line with what we need to do…
The above statement from a former CEO of a management training company corresponds to
Birkinshaw and Goddard (2009) who discuss the management model. According to the authors,
a management model is the choices concerning the approach towards decision-making,
activities coordination, objectives management and enabling individual motivation. Similarly,
Aaltonen et al. (2004) discuss the organizational architecture – that closely resembles
management model – and see it as balancing between strategy versus structure, goals versus
accepted performance, and values versus management conduct. Notably, agency, context,
process dynamics and learning span all the dimensions and represent a management model on
a higher (meta-) level. Therefore, viewing the concept of business model through the lenses of
territories of experience allows unveiling the management side of the business model concept,
the “how” side of business.
IMPLICATION AND VALUE
Application of the territories of experience approach allows enlarging our understanding of the
business model concept by coherently incorporating such important aspects as agency,
dynamics, context and learning into our understanding of the business models. This perspective
unveils the management side of the business model concept that many companies are
frequently unaware of. Yet, the management side is of critical importance as it elaborates the
way of thinking about the fundamental choices that any company needs to make regarding how
to make business.
Action perspective emphasizes the action logic as a fundamental mechanism of the opportunity
-centric business model concept thereby accounting for the dynamic nature of the concept, as
well as establishing the essential connection between business model and business
Additionally, including agency as an indispensable part of the business model conceptualization
enables resolving the debate on the entrepreneurial personality: it is no longer viewed as an
external entity being capable or incapable of entrepreneurial behavior; but rather as embedded
in the process bringing a multitude of capabilities and traits and influencing the process from
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