Monday 19 December 2011

What comes next after Facebook and Twitter? The challenge of keeping up with a constantly changing digital world

Note - I originally posted a short version of this post in July.

The last 5-10 years have been characterised by a communications revolution. During that time we have seen the mass roll out of broadband and mobile broadband, an explosion of new hardware devices that tap into that connectivity and an explosion of software-as-a-service (SaaS) solutions, apps and social networking sites that have transformed the way people interact with data and processes. Together these changes have given users unprecedented access to information and connectivity to peers, transforming the way we complete tasks and transforming many different types of relationships from consumer to employee to supplier. Fundamental human behaviors may not have changed much – we have always been “social” - what has changed however is connectivity, access, transparency, speed and scale.

The communications changes we have seen do not represent a single one off disruption. If the last five years have taught us anything it is that constant disruptive change is here to stay. Think about the rapid rise and fall of mySpace and SecondLife, the speed at which Twitter has grown, the rapid evolution of Facebook from a college social network into a social commerce platform, or the extent to which the tablet PC has entered our daily lives. It seems that almost every week a new disruptive hardware device is being launched or a new social network or online game has spread like wildfire and carved out a new niche in the market.

For most businesses the changes in communications and the constant disruption that we have seen present both opportunity and threat. On one hand, those that can move fast are taking advantage of new devices and platforms to create new business models or new marketing, sales, service and R&D platforms. GiffGaff, for example, an MVNO in the Telco industry (with a total staff of just 14 employees) has created a community-driven business model that incentivises consumers to contribute to product development (tariff structures), customer acquisition and customer service. GiffGaff customers contribute to product development (one of their customers even built them an iPhone app!), they generate between 5-7k new acquisitions per month purely from word of mouth marketing and they fix 90% of service problems with an average response time of under three minutes within the community support forum.

Other digital start-ups are being equally disruptive. Think of the “mesh-business” that ZipCar or Streetcar have created and the way that they have disrupted the car rental industry; or look at how Netflix or the Huffington Post have disrupted the media industry (as I write, Netflix looks like it may also be disrupted; partly through its own doing and partly through the start-up of streaming only platforms with no legacy in DVD distribution). Or consider, micro-finance companies like Kiva, which is generating millions of dollars of loans per month and transforming access to funding for people who otherwise would have no access to banking services.

Businesses taking advantage of digital disruption are not just limited to start-ups. Consider how Proctor & Gamble engage with hundreds of thousands of mothers on the Mumsnet social network and on its homegrown social networks to develop new product ideas and test new concepts. Proctor & Gamble’s Connect-and-Develop program allows idea co-creation with third parties and enables them to crowd-source solutions to fix some of its most complex R&D issues. Similarly, KLM, the Dutch airline has also embraced new digital technologies and platforms with great success. Its KLM Clubs China & Africa have allowed it to build communities for entrepreneurs travelling to emerging markets with KLM, creating additional value for club members way outside what you would usually expect. Even BT, often criticised (perhaps unfairly) for lacking innovation, has been a pioneer in online self-service, community and social media customer care. Its BT Care team actively monitors social networks, reaches out to customers to offer support. It has also focused on building an online community to facilitate peer-to-peer support, deflecting calls from its contact centres.

On the flip side, many IT departments are struggling to keep up with the constant game of catch up. Picture the corporate IT department burdened with a huge maintenance overhead now overwhelmed with a backlog of requests to support the latest Apple device, the latest app or the latest social network. In addition, corporate IT looks aghast at employees connecting their own devices to corporate systems, departments creating their own social media sites and lines of business managers purchasing software-as-a-service solutions and putting the subscription costs onto their expenses account. Many IT departments have simply lost control and are struggling to embrace new digital technologies and ways of working. Most are trying to re-establish their value to the business, fully aware that IT departments that fail to add value to the business run the risk of making themselves irrelevant and perpetuating the cycle of rogue purchasing, data silos and an inconsistent, disconnected user experience.

The problem of catch-up is not limited to the IT department. In exactly the same way those businesses that fail to keep up with consumers run the risk that their own customers will simply disengage and swarm on to a competitor that supports the latest device, app or social network. Constant change can be just as much a headache for the business as it is for the IT department, as keeping up with the constantly changing consumer requires keeping a strong finger on the pulse of the consumer, as well as being agile enough to change plans on the fly without creating chaos.

Within this environment of uncertainly it’s tempting to try and form predictions of what might happen next; for example, what will come after Facebook or Twitter? Whilst I am all for creating a compelling vision, planning and keeping a finger on the pulse of the changing communications happening right now, I suspect that for the majority of organisations, the reality is that thinking about what comes after Facebook and Twitter might be entirely the wrong question.

We don't yet know what will come next after Facebook and Twitter. We don't know what disruptive device will be launched next by Apple or another hardware manufacturer. We don't know what game changing moves Google or Facebook will make next; nor do we know what new social network or online game is currently being dreamt up by a college student in San Francisco, London, Tel Aviv or Bangalore. What we do know is these things will happen. What we do know is that constant disruptive change is now the norm and that without question each change will have an impact on the way that consumers (feel free to substitute with employees, suppliers, analysts etc) interact with companies, data, processes and of course, with each other.

Better (and potentially tougher) questions to think about might be:

1. How can we build stronger customer relationships based on true value co-creation that will be less susceptible to cannibalization by passing fads?

2. How can we keep track of where our customers are currently engaging with our brand and with each other? How can we spot changes, trends and spikes?

3. How can we cut through vast quantities of unstructured customer data with accuracy and drive insight into action faster than the competition?

4. How quickly can we embrace change within our organisation and execute on opportunities that we have spotted?

5. How can we leverage innovation from our customers and partners as well as from the vast armies of open source, SaaS, web and app developers who are either looking to build upon the dominant platforms of today or trying to create the platforms of tomorrow?

6. What are the foundation elements that enable us to become more agile? How can we embrace and integrate (again and again) to new devices, new services, new apps, new networks etc.?

Without doubt these are difficult questions to answer. They are cross functional in nature and they force you to address some basic, foundation issues. As a starting point, many of the questions stem from your attitudes and mindset towards customers. They involve a shift towards outside-in thinking and the adoption of service dominant logic; thinking about the way in which you are constantly monitoring the jobs customers are trying to do and how you can help your customers create value. From a technology perspective the questions should prompt discussion around your core delivery approach (agile vs. waterfall), your information architecture, attitudes towards open standards / service integration, master data management, business process integration etc. Not to mention your attitudes to employees connecting their own devices to corporate systems and engaging on behalf of your brand on social networking sites. The questions challenge the way in which IT and the business work together (left brain and right brain need to be in alignment), the breaking down of internal silos, the way customer-facing staff are empowered to collaborate, fix issues and take action.

However, at the heart of the challenge is the focus on agility. There is a well-worn cliché in business circles, which is "skate to where the puck is going to be". The reality is that few of us are like ice hockey legend Wayne Gretsky and can predict where the puck will be 100% of the time. We can see megatrends and we can align around those, but we can’t predict the future. The majority of organisations would gain greater benefit from improving their core customer relationships and their speed and agility so that they can take advantage of changes faster than their competitors, rather than trying to predict what will come next after Facebook and Twitter. To use another well worn business cliché, as Jack Welch, the former CEO of General Electric, once said “we only have two sources of competitive advantage; the ability to learn more about our customers faster than the competition, and the ability to turn that learning into action faster than the competition”. One of the key advantages of doing business in a digital age is data – there really is no excuse these days for not having insight into customers or markets. The challenge is what you do with the insight and the speed at which you can execute.

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The Customer Revolution Blog by Laurence Buchanan is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.
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