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Fostering collaboration means blurring boundaries. Internally, it involves letting knowledge flow across organizational silos, capitalizing on informal knowledge to reshape work according to more efficient and human-centric patterns. Externally, it assumes nurturing new relationships with customers to better help them in their day-to-day lives, providing a better service and learning from their interactions.
I am of course over-simplifying here the scope and complexity of Enterprise 2.0 and Social CRM fields, in order to make this simple and obvious statement: blurring internal (among stakeholders) and external (with customers) boundaries won’t be a sustainable evolution unless it is considered as a step toward a more radical change. The traditional (industrial) dyadic model of company-customers must also evolve to adapt to our new hyper-connected environment. But where do we go from here?
Sadly enough, most discussions around Enterprise 2.0 only scratch the surface of the consequences of evolving toward connected ecosystems on business. Socializing business processes merely keeps the fundamental nature and operational aspects of organizations unchanged. Internal collaborative problem solving, as well as social learning applied to in-work training, is often no more than a chase for efficiency, while staying stuck in present paradigm.
In large corporations, the main (if not only) reason of existence for many roles, and even departments, is to ‘keep things together’: insuring coherent vertical integration, bridging across silos, reducing internal friction… Diffusion of collaborative behaviors will at some point dismiss the necessity to maintain them. Nevertheless, effectiveness cannot be left to autopoiesis. On the other side, the more the companies have to reach out customers on multiple contact points, the more internal departments are involved in the walk, without necessarily speaking the same language. Retailers won’t take the same approach than wholesalers, who might be contradicted by customer service…
Enterprise 2.0 thinkers have put a strong emphasis on leadership, on the necessary role of leaders in employees’ empowerment. Leaders have indeed the necessary skills to fuel the collaborative engine. But how many leaders can a single, unified, organization afford? It takes some kind of personal vision to lead, and chances are good that coexistence of several leaders, or even some kind of distributed leadership, might induce more chaos than convergence. In our complex multi-relational world, maintaining a single, corporate, voice is no more an option. To blur internal boundaries while avoiding decomposition, companies need to experiment with new organizational models.
Brands as strange attractors
At the other side of the spectrum, do customers discuss together, gather into communities, they are wishful to improve their own personal life, they are ready to suggest improvements in products or services. But they don’t bother about an organization’s hierarchy, corporate culture, or… yikes, processes. They buy propositions made on behalf of brands. Whoever being at some point in contact with customers must meet the expectations raised by those brands, sharing a defined set of values, delivering a defined level, and nature, of service.
Brands are mainly considered as intermediaries between companies and customers. They convey factual, as well as emotional, information upon products, reinforcing both consumers’ confidence in their buying choices (through information accumulated in brand’s offering history) and their self-esteem (through symbolic exchanges channeled by brands values and personality). This linear approach (information against emotion) leads to companies hiding their internal structure and mechanism behind brands. This is perfectly on line with the traditional value-in-transaction model, but is clearly unsuitable with connected ecosystems, where companies and customers share an ever growing number of contact points.
Rather than transactional amplifiers, brands have another important role to play for connected organizations; they have to be considered as the strange attractors of the complex systems formed by companies, their stakeholders and customers.
A step toward a more sustainable model
A more and more important part of the value associated with a brand comes from interaction between the company and customers This either directly, both shaping the brand’s personality by transferring emotional values and sentiment generated (as in the case of brands communities), or indirectly, accumulated along cradle-to-grave customer’s journey with the brand.
All these interactions are the expression of forces at work between individuals during the whole brand’s lifecycle: companies’ internal mechanisms, customers’ relations circles and communities, customer service, empowerment and influence (which Michael Wu recently insightfully described ), open innovation, crowdsourcing… where the brand itself is no more an intermediary, but a representative symbol.
Customers and marketers have been accustomed to such transfer of value, value in expectation, for instance, being directly linked to the brand associated value. But organizations themselves should care much more about brands, as they offer a new model to maintain, and reinforce in a meaningful way, the collaborative enterprise. Let us envision networked specialized entities or departments, gathered around shared brands’ values and directly linked to customers. This model, as it works for Zappos and a few others, might prove itself an alternative, more sustainable, model for today’s rigid and bloated organizations.
I agree that we’re indeed on course for convergence (my musings on the subject can be found here http://tinyurl.com/3x3dzho), but believe that focusing on the brand puts too much emphasis on just one part of the collaborative value chain – namely the company and its brand.
This reasoning above leads to the brand needing to take ownership of the full customer experience – which is actually a cohesive, integrated set of experiences of the customer with all the stakeholders during the lifetime of use – and requires tight coordination and mutual understanding of the Customer Job between suppliers, distributers, channels – and customers – in order to create an effective “partnership for desired outcomes’.
For this reason I believe your idea of what constitutes a collaborative enterprise does not go far enough, in my opinion it should look beyond the company or the brand and combine value that each of the stakeholders can contribute. This is done already in many cases but its value is underestimated or doesn’t retain the attention of customers unless something goes wrong. One good example would be the way Starbuck treats its suppliers as partners (http://www.auburn.edu/outreach/ecdi/resources/wfd_barista_principal.pdf – p.8+).
A counter example would be when you purchase a product on an ecommerce site and they use a third party for shipping. When the shipper promises 24 hour delivery (for which you pay extra) and they don’t deliver, nor provide you with customer service to track it down, this could lead you to reconsider buying from the ecommerce site (who of course will categorically deny any responsability for shipping mishaps…).
Basically what I’m saying is that a “brand” does not sufficiently cover all the elements that constitute the customer experience, but can serve to vehicule the values and shape the expected experience (brand promise). What is an issue is when a company is judged on capabilities that are beyond its control and thus can impact the brand negatively.
More collaboration around, for and with the customer is definitely needed (and in my opinion THE compelling reason for Enterprise 2.0 implementation), but we need to go beyond the traditional boundaries and extend this collaboration to the whole value chain.
We agree on lot of points. Fact is I had a hard time writing this post, since there are so many ideas I wanted to pack in it, and that I have even more to say after your comment 😀
I give up trying to organize my thinking, so let us try a list “à la Prévert’:
What you call the whole value chain is what I see as a company’s ecosystem (customers included). They are so many feedback loops influencing the lifetime of use that I cannot think about it as a chain anymore, but as an interconnected network of actors and experiences
I don’t believe so much in ‘distributed leadership’ which is implied in many Enterprise 2.0 initiatives, and think instead that brands may act as an internal cohesive vision
Brands are not a two-way construct, but are nurtured by every interaction / relationship. Starbuck’s example is a good one of indirect impact
In your third-party shipper example, bad delivery handling will negatively impact the brand, but, denial or not, it is company’s responsibility to choose wisely its subcontractors. The brand deterioration would be a direct effect of some broken relationship in company’s ecosystem (thus my strange attractor analogy; brand’s personality – directly related to service level – affects each stakeholder, and each relationship – link inside ecosystem – in return affects the brand)
On an even more symbolic level, brands represent the relationships involved in value transfer (which I had better than value creation) between stakeholders, customers included. I see these transfers acting in the same manner as Kula exchanges, while value retained is as important as value given, brands themselves aggregated all the value (negative as well as positive) involved during the whole customer experience.
Thanks for firing up the discussion, and sorry for this unordered musing 😉
Your point about the value of brands as a form of “internal coherent vision” is well taken; having common vision can be a catalyst for improving the effective permeability of functional boundaries within an organization. And, it is often at the intersection of boundaries where the really interesting, innovative work happens.
It is interesting to consider how brands can function in building collaborative organizations. (This is particularly intriguing to me as it seems to be playing out quite effectively in a project I am working on).
Thank you for this comment, Janet.
it is often at the intersection of boundaries where the really interesting, innovative work happens
I would push your argument even further, saying that present “boundaries” only exist in reference to structures inherited from the industrial age, and are more conceptual and subjective than natural. When switching paradigm, and considering the collaborative enterprise as a holistic ecosystem, they will vanish by themselves…
You might find this paper interesting: On the Status of Natural Boundaries: A Complex Systems Perspective by Kurt Richardson.
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