Information sharing is one of the chief challenges to creating a customer-centric organization and mining that customer-centric organization for context.
In my recent blog post entitled Context Just a Glimmer, Au Contraire, I discussed my mild disagreement with Eric Krapf over the state of applying context in customer service interactions today. I argued that context is more than just a glimmer in the eyes of Avaya, Microsoft, Cisco and others and highlighted examples of context in use. I promised to explore other aspects of the context equation, so in this post I will discuss some of the reasons why more organizations haven't employed context and some of the challenges to becoming a context-aware organization.
One reason that more organizations have not moved beyond a mashup of information toward turning that information into context is because they don't yet see a direct connection between the effort and the rewards. This is because the costs can be steep and the benefits diffuse.
There are hard costs that include investments in technology, resource deployment, training, support, etc. There are also many soft costs and opportunity costs. The cloud and other new ways of deploying technology and applications may change the math for deployment to some degree, but the challenges extend beyond IT. Becoming a context-aware organization and employing layers of textured information in service to customers often means a fundamental transition in how the business is run.
Truly applying context in service to a customer means more than just implementing a technology. It means a fundamental change in the way that an organization does business. To put context to work, an organization really must put the customer at the center of its efforts. As noble a goal as this is, this often runs against the way in which many organizations align their resources.
Although for many years we have heard pundits profess the value of the customer-centric organization, if it were easy to achieve, more organizations would be there already. Part of the reason is the organizational principle of vertical integration. Organizations align resources around function, and systems are put in place to support those functions. In the archetypical organization, for some departments such as customer service, focus should be squarely on the customer. For another part of the organization, such as material logistics, thought of the customer may seem more distant.
For many functions, internal organizational structure is architected to generate efficiency in ways that end up forcing the customer out of the focal point. When it comes to decisions about the effective allocation of resources, this does not mean that the customer is left out, but often the customer is not the first thought in process and organizational design.
Especially in large enterprises, the results are that resources are often siloed. For many organizations it can be difficult to bridge information across individual silos. The ideal situation to accomplish putting the customer at the center of an organization's efforts is demolishing those silos so that information flows freely. Failing that, the task is finding meaningful ways in which to share the information about the customer.
However, too often in an organizational hierarchy, information represents power, and so participants hoard information in hopes of protecting their power. This obviously defeats the goal of breaking down the silos.
For this and other reasons, opening up a gateway even to an internal peer organization can hold disincentives. We may wish to envision a company as one big sandbox with everyone playing and sharing happily, but those of us who have lived within enterprise organizations will understand that companies are human institutions governed by human emotions. Organizational culture reflects our humanity. Putting the customer at the center too often hits headlong into people, processes, politics and procedures.
Information sharing is one of the chief challenges to creating a customer-centric organization and mining that customer-centric organization for context. Information that is important to creating proper context around a customer experience is dispersed across most organizations. The sales department knows about what a customer has purchased. Customer service knows about warranties and maintenance contracts. Marketing may know that a customer is active on social media. Like the unwoven threads of a textile, creating the fabric of customer centricity means knitting together what is described in Gartner's IT glossary as a knowledge community.
Beyond demolishing the silos, a technique to unleash the information is "Metadata." Metadata is descriptive information about a piece of data that allows us to be able put it to work in a more useful way. The problem is historically we have not created metadata, but the potential is there. Organizations have a great deal of information that can be put to use. Unfortunately there is often an enormous task of trying to figure out how to make that information actionable.
The structure of the data is another major challenge to creating a customer-centric, context-aware organization. Data about a customer is often structured for the operational purposes for which it was gathered. It is also represented in compliance with the underlying system in which it is stored. Although there may be common fields such as name, address, telephone number, this doesn't mean that the way in which the data is represented in the systems is common across the organization.
An example is a telephone number. In the systems that support one operational function, a telephone number may be represented as 617-555-1234. In another part of the organization a system may require the telephone number be represented as (617) 555-1234. Without either massaging the data to bring it to a common format or implementing a metadata schema to describe the independent formats, it can be hard to put that tidbit of information to work holistically without costly human intervention.
Having now talked about some of the reasons why more organizations haven't employed context and given a couple examples of the challenges in putting context to work, the next question to ask is, "Is it worth the effort?" In my next post, I will discuss some of the benefits of applying context and how the foundations of a business case can be laid, to tip the balance in favor of creating the customer-centric, context-rich organization. Thank you for your attention and time. I look forward to our next conversation.