Hugh writes a great post about why business blogs can help organizations improve customer connections. (Updated to later illustrate that the concept is relevant in intra-organizational discussions as well.) The metaphor is that there is a membrane that surrounds every organization, and that membrane impedes real information flow and, with it, learning. The nugget:
Hugh: “The more porous your membrane (“x”), the easier it is for the internal conversation to inform the external conversation, and vice versa.”
In other words, if there is alignment, or “equilibrium,” between what’s happening inside the organization and what’s happening in the customer base, both sets of stakeholders will be better off. Customers will be getting what they want, and organizations will have happy customers. And, presumably, reasonable profits.
This triggered four thoughts:
- The theory above sounds a lot like this.
- For this to work, it can’t just be “conversation,” it has be the RIGHT conversation.
- There is a flow to this. Flow 1 is “out to in.”
- There is a second flow to this. Flow 2 is “in to out.”
So, first off, this sounds a lot like thermodynamics. I had to go look up the thermo stuff to put this post together, and then it made my head hurt (again, like it did mumblysomethingsomething years ago, the first time I saw it in school), so I closed that page quickly. But, I think a way to characterize this model is through paraphrasing that law into something like this:
“Insight spontaneously disperses from being localized to becoming spread out if it is not hindered.”
Insight is good. Knowledge is good. Knowledge of real customer needs can help an organization do the right thing for the market. Knowledge of what a supplier is doing can help a customer make better decisions.
Another way of putting this…communication in this way changes the game from being zero-sum to being collaborative. Things tend toward zero-sum when information is withheld, and power and manipulation come into play. This changes that.
Moving onto the second point above, the idea of “conversation” needs some clarity. We’ve come to use the word “conversation” as shorthand for “folks who ‘get it,’ and want to work collaboratively, and want to share information, etc.” However, all conversations are not the same. More importantly, all conversations are not equal.
For this model to work, some conversational structure may need to be in place. If customers are clamoring for something (let’s say, a fad-ish feature in a product that may have long-term detrimental effects), the company can react in two ways. In the first case, the company can listen to those customers blindly, and deliver exactly what they want. In the second case, the company could try to explain some of the shortcomings of following that approach, and try to reach a middle ground where both parties agree, that results in a longer-term positive outcome for both sides.
Both cases reach equilibrium, but they are certainly not equal conversations.
Which brings us to points three and four above, the flows. There will be an increasingly strong “out-to-in” flow if a company is not meeting the current needs of its customers. If there is a flood of feedback going across that membrane from out-to-in, and nothing is being done about it, there is a sure bet that at some point in the future that organization will be in trouble. However, if that out-to-in flow is moderate and steady and is responded to with an equal in-to-out flow of information about how the company is responding, you can bet the company is marching ahead in step with where its customers are going.
The “in-to-out” flow, on the other hand, is a quite interesting one. Assuming the in-to-out flow is information-rich (and not a flood of the same-ol’-B.S.), the company is providing some insight and novel ideas to the marketplace. This is good. However, similar to the example above, if this flow gets too strong, the company may be outrunning its customers, and providing products or services that require change the market can’t yet absorb or isn’t ready for yet (see the Apple Newton for an example). In this case, the company should take a step back and perhaps slow down a notch and listen to what’s coming back in from the outside.
Food for thought.
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