External social networks are not only for marketing purposes

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1977

Generally, when I talk about social networks for other people than employees, I’m answered “ah ? I thought you were not interested in all these marketing things”. This is the obvious proof that, for many people and many companies, when you aim at an external audiance it’s for communication and sale purpose, following a one way flow. Said differently : “outside we talk, inside we work and both have nothing in common”. Seen with a little distance it embodies the idea according to which it’s the company that condition its environment and not the opposite.

Preconceived ideas that were true at a given moment but shows we are now entering a new era.

In the first times, the use of web 2.0 technologies and practices in the service of companies was seen under two disctint angles. Externally, to communicate, federate, create brand awareness, in order to sell. Internally to favor interactions between employees, empower collaboration, in order to produce more efficiently. No other possibility outside of these two viewpoints. We must also notice that everything was compartmentalized : how many times did we hear that such company was more open with its clients than with its employees and that it wasn’t doing with them what it was proud to do with custumers.

One reason is also a certain form of conservatism that makes that companies are much more open to new values, new ways to do things provided it happens outside its walls and that it’s easier to find budgets to improve short term revenues (sales) than to improve internal organization which is a much long and depth project with political impacts.

The came the time of ideagoras, notably embodied by I-Prize and Human network at Cisco (read my notes here and here) or Ideastorm at Dell. The idea was not to create some proximity between the company and the outside anymore, but to use it in order to improve products, make new ideas emerge, using people’s innovation skills and involving them in the conception of the products they will buy. Some true progress but no real impact on production since it’s focused on sourcing.

In the same time, the question of optimizing internal interactions was making its way and was finding its place in the debate even if many web 2.0 specialist were not interested at all in business organization. It’s one of the reasons of the emergence of the enterprise 2.0 niche which seems to share less and less with general public web 2.0’s concerns.

In one word, there was the enterprise and the outside, both being separated by a membrane that is wanted to be impermeable, even if reality is very far from theory. But does this vision have a future at a time when companies are asked to be more and more operationnaly efficient ?

If we have a closer look, value is not created within the company but at the point it’s in contact with the clients. Having an optimized production, an awesome productivity is useless if they are not used to satisfy the market. So value his created where and when production meets the market, the rest being necessary but not sufficient. If the company / client interface fails, the whole value creation process is at risk. People who read my posts on limits (here and here) can understand this is true limit to performance : the ability to deliver a valuable service / product for the client. Improving service, the product, customer care, internal processes, indicators, HR processes etc… are useless if the last link of the chain can’t deliver its full potential. Every internal improvement will have no effect since such a limit or bottleneck still exist. One can marginally impact costs but in no way it will create value (read this sentence as many times as needed…it may hurt many certainties but it’s nothing but logic. Imagine a chain, if you reduce costs you can reduce the weight of each link and, consequently, the weight of the chain. But in order to create value it doesn’t matter, it’s the resistance of the whole chain that matters).

Quality professionals have been knowing for ages that production systems do not end at the company’s walls but also involves people on the client’s side, even the end user. That’s  what makes the difference between companies that content themselves with delivering a service or a product and those who try to satisfy their client’s needs. The impact on performance and turnover is not trivial.

The reality of many businesses is not a client that comes at the store and leaves with a product in this back, above all in B2B. It’s teams leading project not at the client’s but with the client’s teams. They create value together. But since companies try to improve interactions between employees, to many barriers exist with clients and partners. Lack of reactivity due to formal exchanges, sole hub logics, operations that has nothing to do with agility… Result : misunderstandings, waste of time, production not in accordance with what was planed, dialogues of the deaf. I’m often scared when I hear people involved in such teams saying “us” when talking about their company and “them” when talking about the client : value are created when both are in contact, within these combined teams an nowhere else. Every barrier to collaboration, interaction, between supplier and client teams as a huge costs. That is not two teams working together but one team that has to succeed.

There’s a point we have to keep in mind : so much money is spent to deal with organization barriers that prevent from collaborating efficiently with clients that, at the end, there’s often a lack of resources, a lack of time to achieve the objective : make a successful project. Did you ever try to put a figure to the resources dedicated to facilitation and coordination ? What part is essential and what part is dedicated to fix organizational issues ? And what is the amount of “hidden time”, never counted, but that has a decisive weight at the end ?

It reminds me of what Louis Schweitzer said about that : technical conversations are not enough, community-ship has to be developed.

According to me, this will be a major trend for 2009 : social networks open to the outside for production purposes. These “business networks”, as PWC said, will support business alliances that will support growth in the upcoming years.

I can see many benefits there

• Immediate quantifiable benefits with clear indicators : those that are used to evaluate the success of the project.

• Beneficts you can put a figure to  : in project with a client, there is a financial transaction so it’s easy to translate benefits into money.

• less risks for companies : starting with combined project teams, companies will lear without exposing their core.

• an organizational response adapted to hard times

Once it’s done, companies will have to understand that, within their walls, their employees have client to supplier relationship the ones with the others, everyone being a resource, a service that can be shared.

After internal networks for employees and external networks to gather potential clients (pragmatic name for a community…), this is the combined network in order to produce more efficiently with clients and partners.