Shifting worlds

The hectic pace and turmoil around the Euro crisis again reveals how cross-linked our systems really are. The commercial, political decision-making and economic development of the Euro countries and the rest of the world form such a complex network that a crisis in one area might have serious consequences for the whole. The media is overflowing with alarming reports on the developments in the Eurozone. ‘The countdown has started’, ‘The Eurozone is falling apart’, ‘We’re going back to our own currency’ and so on. Experts flood each other with analyses, political leaders discuss it and the market finds itself in an uncertain state. The problem seems to be too complex for the solution.

Since there is so much about us that we still don’t know, the question is how can organizations take action? We know that we are in business because of our customers, relations and employees, and that we need these desperately. But who are they, what do they do, what motivates them, what are their expectations, what are their needs, how does their future look like and what is their focus? In short, the real issue for our very existence does not lie within the global economic stage, but on the customer relationships level. How do we create common grounds with their world? How do we relieve them of their problems? And how do we create loyalty?

A few months ago my son was born. The whole euro problem was lost to me as my world reduced itself to in and around the house, providing for food and rest. In the same time my world had suddenly grown larger through all the new knowledge and skills I had to acquire to be able to care for my child, and by becoming a customer for new services such as maternity care, child-friendly cafés and restaurants, the crèche and the clinic. I stayed at home some time and during this nurturing period I had the world 24/7 available on my Smartphone. Facebook was especially cosy and a practical meeting place, where even during the night I could find an acquaintance from another time zone online. It looks like I finally had a practical reason to investigate my own client behaviour in this new environment and situation. It’s a small world after all.

I had previously used Facebook only in a fleeting manner: I mainly looked at the status updates from others and kept my circle of friends small and private, depending on the possibilities offered by the terms of use. Lately however, a fusion has occurred with part of my business world. I noticed that this social connectivity was very enriching. First of all, there were all the nice people; secondly, the social exchanges we built with them generated mutually-beneficial social capital. Social relationships and a deeper understanding emerges, that goes beyond a purely functional interaction.

What we hear

Because we are constantly connected, in real time, in any place, with the rest of the world, our world has become larger and smaller in the same time. Our worlds merge on both macro and micro level. On a macro level the developments seem to be mainly negative and largely elusive. On the micro level there is talk of a very different development that has a much more positive approach: ‘regular’ people have many more opportunities to exchange information, help each other and organize themselves in a quick and ad-hoc manner. By linking networks of individuals through fast connections where physical distance makes no difference at all, we create strong communities that can enforce business and make a difference. Everyone can create their own world.

What we know

All these developments bring in a certain blurring for the boundaries of organisations. Is this asking too much from such an entangled and unstable world, or is it an inevitable development? Between people in and around organisations there is more and more talk around the subject: besides the obvious functional evidence, more emphasis is placed on social interaction that goes beyond the usual ceremony of the normal business meeting. We rediscover the value of social interaction, which often disappears in the extensive rationalisation of the labour process driven by efficiency. The world of the organization thus becomes larger and even more elusive on first impression. On the other hand, the exchange of social capital between individual people increases the power of the connection along with the strengthening of the functional relationship. In tough economic times, this is an important commodity.

A better view

People want to be seen as human beings and want to see other people and connect with them. The quality, strength and thus the influence of the connection depends on the trustworthiness of others. This trust is in turn determined on the basis of authenticity, by assessing their stories and the social capital they have built up through mutual exchange. If there are any doubts, irritation and suspicion easily find their way in. If there is any sign of non-transparent actions, we start to see plenty of ‘un-friends’, ‘ignores’ or even ‘un-likes’.

As organisation, it often seems that in these times we should be able to reach our customers and associates easier, to gather information from and about them without much effort. But is that true? Are we actually talking to them? And are customers really waiting on us?

When we regard an organisation as a collection of people with different qualities who share the same goal, it is logical that the organisation cannot make conversation. The world the organisation faces as a whole is too big and complex. The grand gesture does not work anymore; the masses are too large and elusive. It happens at the individual level in the capillaries of the network. The organisation facilitates and directs the density of the network of connections between individual customers, clients and employees. But the real connection between people is what is at stake.

Two-sided glance

Knowing your customer does not mean blindly listening and adapting. Indeed, if Ford had listened to the customer, they would have asked for a faster horse. The same goes for many inventions from there on. For organisations it is therefore important to both see the customer and decide where to take them. To perceive it in an analytical and rational way. To see the customer means being open for the new and unknown and to always reinvent yourself. In short, understanding the customer as a person who is active in a network of worlds and playing a multitude of roles. The strategy therefore means constantly seeing the things that are far away as if they were close by, and to continue looking at the things that are near us from a distance.