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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.