In an article on mastering complexity while innovating, Henry Ford is quoted as saying, "If I had asked my customers what they wanted, they would have asked for a faster horse."
In the quote is the dilemma of innovation for companies that use surveys, product planning, consultants hired away from their customer base and like strategies. It is expensive and it doesn't work reliably. Over the years, the best results I've seen come from those who talk to the customers casually. This accomplishes what the article recommends: you get to understand the heart of the customer.
The devil in the stone is getting developers to trust those who do talk to customers and getting those who talk to customers to translate that faithfully. In commission-driven sales environments, that is tough to achieve. In any management suite where numbers and the promise of numbers drive the day to day operations, it is almost impossible.
A colleague who was a field representative to a major American city related that sales efforts for an account with that customer were doomed because over lunch she had heard the decision maker relating to another co-worker that our company wasn't even being considered. We took that information to management who promptly discarded it as gossip because a consultant had assured them that our company was indeed the front runner. With that positive relationship spinning, we went on to spend a very large sum of money and company resources on a bid that we did lose just as our field rep told us we would. Why? No one believes bad news when hope marries propaganda. Numbers are often just that: propaganda from the management suite. See Iraq.
Another problem is incrementalism. After our new General Manager made her reputation for being 'customer-focused', development became saturated with requests for product changes. In the past, development could decline these as non-strategic, meaning they added no value for the majority of the customers. Under the new GM, technology didn't matter. Keeping customers happy so they wouldn't generate bad press did. Once the customers understood that, bad press and liquidated damages became the topic of every conversation and of course, we slipped further behind the broad market requirements and deeper into the technology chasm because we did not have the resources to rapidly educate ourselves and develop new products.
Filtered views and closed doors are barriers to innovation. It is one thing to say we are listening; it is another to actually hear what is said. Understanding requires patience in conversation and that means time. Those who are ‘time-sensitive positive relationship managers’ can open their doors to their employees or their customers, but they will only hear what they think is important, and then they will demand a ‘faster horse’.
To solve problems like these, more conversations need to be had with more of the players most of the time. Companies need new ways to talk to customers often and casually and at every level of the company. Blogging companies know this and they are wining in the market. They understand that there is no such thing as an inward facing and outward facing set of communications. That strategy is the buggy whip of today. In a network-savvy company, ALL communicators face in ALL directions ALL of the time. That they may not use them is apparent, but they have them when they need them.
Blogs are one means but blogs tend to be ‘one guy on a soapbox talking loud and gathering a crowd’. That is fine for topics that require depth, but the hints the lead to understanding the heart of the customer are typically discovered in casual conversations. For that the web offers chatrooms.
Chat rooms have a mixed reputation given the problems of Ally Oxen Come Free chat rooms that are the majority on the web. Corporate chat rooms are a different beastie. They are corporation sponsored and corporation hosted. They can have corporate policies just as corporate bloggers heed, and they produce server logs that can be mined. While this flies a bit in the general wisdom that less control is better, and it usually is, a corporate chat room is not a public web site. With the right technologies, it is also a corporate communications center, a branded face on the corporate conversations, and can be a means to show off products new, old, and emerging.
An innovation for this is to move the corporate chat world into a virtual world using free and relatively simple real-time 3D technology such X3D and ABNet. The advantages are exactly as promised: presence and branded identities for customers, employees and press. As long as the conversations are casual, the encounters unhindered, and the style is entertaining, these corporate 3D rooms can serve as a place of fun, familiarity and business without the bar tab.
It is a cheap experiment to conduct given the available technologies. Given these technologies can be applied to other customer needs, it is also a cheap means to move a company up the learning curve fast before the spreadsheet nazis can send out a memo or tell the customer that this technology is ‘just a toy’. When the Macintosh and the PC were introduced, they were also ‘just a toy’. Virtual worlds like other innovative technologies need time to find their markets, but the potential for them to be a means to understand and find markets is already there.