Sunday, November 09, 2008

They're not 'volunteers'...

The October 2008 issue of Harvard Business Review carries a feature story on the ways in which organizations can harness the power of the customer-base to enhance the product or service on offer. The article: "The Contribution Revolution" by Scott Cook - sounds like a good article on the use of customer engagement in business, but instead highlights the lack of understanding of social media in business.

We'll get to the negative aspect of the article shortly. On the plus side The Contribution Revolution puts forward a model for a 'user contribution system' - new phrase; makes a good TLA - UCS. The UCS describes the different types of user contribution - active/passive; aggregates content/stuff for sale/behavioural data/resources. Utilising the power of such contribution can provide companies with a number of solid, fundamental benefits:
  • Reduced costs
  • Increased scalability
  • Competitive advantage
The article goes on to talk about the ways in which user contribution can help your company. These include:
  • customer service
  • marketing
  • employee support (intranet-based)
  • capital resources
  • design and development
  • production
There aren't really any great surprises in here for anyone familiar with social media and customer engagement, with the possible exception of 'capital resources'. So lets take a more detailed look at that item.

Capital Resources
The example offered here is Skype. Their voice-over-IP service was built using existing infrastructure - the Internet - and relies on the processing capacity of your computer instead of needing network infrastructure of their own. This is one notion of social media or user contribution that isn't widely discussed: in addition to contributing their own time, ideas, and passion - they also bring their own hardware infrastructure to the party.

This is true of all the video uploaded to youtube: the production work - what there is of it - is carried out on the contributors' own equipment. It's true of the applications submitted to Apple's appstore (for iPhones and iPod Touch) and those in use on Facebook - strong contributors to the value proposition of those services.

The bad part...
OK, so far we've seen a fairly uncontroversial discussion of the ways in which an organization can open up it's boundaries a little and reap some of the rewards discussed above. However, let me come back to the article title, in full this time: "The Contribution Revolution: letting volunteers build your business".

The choice of 'volunteers' as the label to apply to contributors in this context is rather unfortunate. It reinforces an 'us' and 'them' mentality that is at the heart of many organizations' difficulties in understanding the power of customer engagement strategies and the use of social media.

It explains why the section on Customer Service talks about company-sponsored forums rather than strategies for going out and engaging with customers wherever they may happen to be. This is why we see companies struggling to stem a tide of negative sentiment through strategies centred on the creation of 'controlled' public spaces. The aim is to control the message rather than to seriously understand the issues and address them. And companies are scared of such negativity in the public domain; they don't understand the frustration that drives such negativity; and so they assign reasons and motivations that speak to this lack of understanding rather than recognising the root cause lies with them.

It also explains why the article doesn't talk at all about customer engagement occuring beyond the bounds of the organization in channels such as Twitter. To be honest, the article doesn't cover engagement strategies at all. It doesn't cover the need for authenticity and transparency in customer engagement: look at the recent farce perpetrated by the National Australia Bank with their uBank social media experiment; or the robot-like early attempts by Telstra on Twitter. At least Telstra seems to be improving (@bigpondteam) in that issues are no longer being shuttled off-channel to be dealt with 'quietly'.

To characterise the social media and co-creation movements as a form of volunteerism is ludicrous. These trends represent a blurring of the lines demarcing the boundaries of traditional businesses. They represent a change in the economics of product and service design, and manufacturing; a fundamental shift from concrete and discrete corporate entities to networked entities whose boundaries are amorphous at best.

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