There is something serene yet powerful about apparently random acts coming into view at more or less the same time and then seeing pathways - joins in database parlance - emerge that bring a coherence to what's unfolding. Some call it serendipity. Regardless, as I was flipping through my overnight Facebook stream I noticed that Euan Semple along with co-host Megan Murray had posted the latest podcast in the Shift series.
I rarely listen to podcasts these days unless I am on a long haul travel of some kind. I made an exception for this episode, even though I knew I would not get back the 59 minutes needed to listen to the whole thing. Why? Shift 12 had Doc Searls as their guest. Doc who?
Searls is one of the great thinkers around the future of the Internet. He is co-author of the Cluetrain Manifesto whom I had the pleasure to meet sometime around 2007-8 in Paris when he was speaking at LeWeb. A bunch of us were holed up in a small Parisian restaurant and I wanted to hear about Vendor Relationship Management (VRM), a topic that he's been working upon since 2006. The best way to describe VRM is to take some words from Searls book, The Intention Economy:
Just as vendors today are able to manage relationships with customers and third parties, customers tomorrow will be able to manage relationships with vendors and fourth parties, which are companies that serve as agents of customer demand, from the customer's side of the marketplace.
Relationships between customers and vendors will be voluntary and genuine, with loyalty anchored in mutual respect and concern, rather than coercion.
It is an extraordinarily compelling argument but at the time, I said that it would likely meet powerful resistance. He agreed. Nothing I've seen to date has significantly changed that point of view. For all the talk about customer empowerment, consumers of both public and commercial services are still seen as brand owned property rather than as people in genuine partnership.
Nowhere is this more poignantly illustrated than in a video I saw a few days ago where a CEO differentiated his business from competitors by talking about how much they'love our customers.' Yet I know that at least some of those same customers have been the subject of strong arm tactics through which the company hopes to extract more money for no appreciable benefit. Most recently we saw the Best Western price gouging thing. Readers will have their own stories to tell.
During the podcast, Searls acknowledges that we are far from reaching the nirvana he envisages, noting that as we travel more, we don't have access to 'ambient connectivity,' often being forced into paying exorbitant telephone roaming fees. That's no longer so true in Europe following EU legislation coming into force recently. Even so, I don't plan on giving up any of my three cell phones any time soon and am pretty sure the telcos are hatching fresh plans to extract even more from us.
We are empowered - if only we knew it
What's the answer? Searls thinks that it involves customers gaining access to the tools they need with which to start owning those vendors relationships for themselves. In other words it's about the data. As it turns out, we might have already seen a glimpse of that. Check this Tweet from Sanjay Poonen, president and corporate officer at SAP:
— Sanjay Poonen (@spoonen) July 8, 2013
How does this have relevance. If you click on the link you'll see a series of graphs. Gideon Lichfield at Quartz says:
The data aren’t granular enough to get a closer look at the flight’s final moments. But Steve Baker, a systems engineer at JP Morgan Chase, did a bit of his own hacking to create another Google Earth file, which shows the comparison between yesterday’s and the previous day’s flights more clearly.
My emphasis added. A few images on and he concludes:
As experts investigate the plane’s black-box recorders, they will learn a lot more, but as in so many other areas, the internet is now equipped to weigh in first—which, depending on your viewpoint, may or may not be a good thing.
My emphasis added again. If you extrapolate what we are seeing in the very public but unofficial dissection of data, it isn't a stretch to understanding that having the means to manipulate data with the purpose of getting better insights is tantalizingly close for all of us. That's got to be good right? Sure and I can see that we are many more steps closer to VRM than we were back in the day when Searls and I discussed this topic. But again, it isn't that simple.
Do companies get it?
Searls says that most mature companies won't get it. There are too many ways for people to say 'no,' they are too bureaucratic, too stuck in hierarchies that prevent change. That sounds all too familiar with the answer coming from the need to solve a pressing business problem. A good example is the Rentokil Initial case study that Kenny MacIver wrote up where email pain permeated the business. In solving that problem, Rentokil discovered many other services that could ease pain.
How tough are these decisions ti implement? Searls says that it is the corporate equivalent of a sex change operation. No-one volunteers for it and you sure as heck don't want to talk about it. I like that metaphor as indicative of the amount fo change that companies will have to swallow. In her commentary and referring to her time at Booz Allen, Megan Murray says that she used to introduce herself as the Happy Cancer. Another vivid if somewhat distasteful image. But it fits.
As i've watched organizations of all stripes attempting to change, it quickly becomes apparent who are up for the pain and who are not. Despite the most well meaning intentions coming from on high, too many are prepared to sacrifice the potential to win a truly glittering prize for the sake of keeping the peace in a business environment where the average half life of a leading executive is rarely more than three years.
I don't think that any of those factors will stop VRM from becoming a reality. Immersion freely gave me information around my GMail usage which has proven useful. We will see more and more of these kinds of drop dead simple tools that provide valuable insights and onto which we can add nuance.
Despite the fact Big Media prefers to keep us in silos as they can cling to dwindling advertising revenues - hence the re-publication of virtually the same headlines and repurposed press releases by hundreds of publications - we prefer to link OUT. It is based upon the principle that you send people away to bring them back. If you become the source for information held elsewhere then you become Searls' fourth party. That's valuable to everyone in the system.
The information genie is out of the bottle and it's living on the Internet. No-one can stop or control that. But it will be the next generation of executives that reap the harvest being sown today as these are the people invested in the new tools.
A final thought: Facebook and SCN are dead
...they just don't know it.
Searls believes that Facebook's explosive growth portends the speed of its demise. He says it matters not that it has close to a billion registered users. What matters is that it strives to keep all the data it collects to itself behind a walled garden in a world where information wants to be free. But the irony I see in almost every Facebook update to which I pay attention is that there is always a link to the outside world.
In much the same way, while SAP crows about a developer community in excess of two million souls, the fact is that its community network (SCN) is almost a mirror of Facebook only acting as a corporate roach motel. Oddly enough, I view the demise of SCN as inevitable in much the same way as Sealrs sees the demise of Facebook.
In the meantime and if you have the time, check the Shift podcast. Do drink in the first six minutes of the video at the top of the post. It provides a great historical perspective on this topic and where it is going.
If you are a vendor thinking about this, we'd love to hear from you.
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