A significant portion of my work over the last decade (both as part of the marchFIRST/ Mitchell Madison team and later, my own practice) has been in the area of accelerating performance for business partner networks at large organizations.
As is always the case, one of the outcomes of this economic downturn is going to be massive M&A activity and industry restructuring. Just in the last week, we saw Dell and Perot Systems, and now Xerox and ACS tying the knot. My own experience with this was my consulting work during McKesson + HBOC, Sun + StorageTek mergers and recently, a $1B+ communications service provider entering the SMB market via acquisition, amongst others.
The Effect on Traditional Partnerships
One of the most prominent pressure points in the midst of such consolidation is the partner ecosystem. New partners get added, existing partners face conflicts of interest and a sudden expertise/knowhow gap vis a vie the new combined offering. In the case of the channel in particular, the end customer (really the partners customer) looks to the partner for clarity on the manufacturing organizations new standing in the market.
Add to this some of the timeless struggles in this ecosystem that are prevalent in any economy. As a manufacturer of physical or soft goods (say Insurance), you’re always trying to attract the top 20% of your channels sales reps as a way to get the largest share of wallet of that partner. But so are your competitors. So the onus is on you to make it dead simple for your channel to understand and communicate the benefits of your products to the end customer. As important, the ease of doing business with you (which includes partner on-boarding, provisioning, co-marketing, white labeling, first line of support etc) is a big factor for channel sales reps that are going to represent you in the market. I’ve even seen first hand in the SMB channel for large organizations that partners will even give up as much as 10% of margin in exchange for low frictional end customer management and ongoing administration. The difference is more than made up by freed up time to drive up sales volume. All up, simplicity of doing business is paramount.
Organizations are But a Matrix of Internal Partnerships Too
Then there’s another side to this: My work experience has proven that organizations that do well understand that even internally they are really orchestrating a matrix of complex partnerships. Sales with Marketing; Product Development with Marketing, R&D with engineering etc., where each of these tend to work in extremely different ways. To be successful, you need to understand the unique dynamics of this relationship that make for a solid partnership that can ultimately drive the business forward. Outside of internal team collaboration (say, a group of marketers, a group of engineers, etc.), no spray & pray / general purpose employee collaborative strategy (or tool application) is going to really show sustainable impact for every tribe or collective. And just like traditional business ecosystem partnerships (customers, suppliers, channel), these internal partnerships also get significantly rattled in the face of industry consolidation.
Critical Considerations for Social Computing
In principle, social computing constructs afford a significant opportunity to first bring back normalcy to these partnerships at a rapid pace and then accelerate performance well beyond the original baseline – by driving simplicity. Basic constructs such as people and data findability and crossing siloed org designs are important first steps. And these can be made possible with a deliberate strategy and today’s “e2.0’ tools.
Its critical to note though, that these efforts alone likely won’t account for context, incentive and performance driven collaboration preferences – elements that generate tangible business value and participation. And so the true promise from social computing constructs and investment to cultivate these partnerships will be eventually be questioned if the following are not dealt with, head on:
- First, existing structural inefficiencies in how internal or external partners liaise as a result of little adherence to basic human interaction constructs and incentive structures, and unnecessary process centric technology that restricts human capital flow. Examples: Restrictive ECM processes that bring massive risk to business execution or latency and artificial walls in the communication process with supply partners that result in massive lost opportunity to recast the concept of collaboration across the extended business ecosystem.
- Second, neglect of critical early programmatic design considerations that truly accelerate performance via social computing or ‘Enterprise 2.0’ concepts. The results of this will manifest itself during the hangover period following pre-mature/euphoric technology-led change initiation in the enterprise. Examples of “fall outs” will be misconstrued outcomes from Attention optimization (see v. good post by Jevon MacDonald on this), a rudderless rush towards the ‘real time enterprise’ vs. ‘right time’ considerations, mis-alignment between strategy and ‘enterprise 2.0’ deployments. Or the side effects of heightened transparency as a result of open knowledge models (As Oliver Marks eloquently opines).
The business case of socially networked business ecosystems must include solutions and antidotes to these two fundamental issues to gain long term value – whether that’s competitive advantage, cost savings or revenue enhancement. Smart line of business executives will demand it upfront, catch on early post kick off or worse, just ignore the initiative whole hog. They are acutely aware of the failed promise of portals and extranets as the one size fits partnership facilitation solutions to large scale ecosystem integration. So this time around they will want to be convinced that you can bring simplicity, contextual interaction, design around standard performance metrics – yet shield participants from the needed complex technology that’s behind the scenes.
One thing’s for sure: The socially powered business partner ecosystem will not emerge from what we know of to be the ‘Enterprise 2.0’ technology stack, as it stands today. No doubt that the current tools will play a significant role towards simplifying these relationships. But to accelerate business performance via social computing constructs, lots of design work is needed along with the filling of critical technology gaps to truly account for context, cognizance of both process and social at the business activity level, and a deep understanding of and response to individual incentive that makes participation a natural instinct.
At the Enterprise 2.0 conference in San Francisco, Oliver Marks and I will be running a new track called “Selling the Business Case for Accelerating Business Performance with Enterprise Collaboration and 2.0 Technologies”. Via a combination of instructional and practitioner panel discussions, we’re going to tackle how known functions in the organization such as Customer Support, Purpose Driven Employee Collaboration and Supplier Networks can leverage social computing constructs to accelerate performance. There’s a need for a unified social fabric across business ecosystems, yet a deliberate focus on the unique motivations for each business interaction is vital. We aim to bring it all together at the conference. More details about the track from Oliver and from E2.0 Conference Chair, Steve Wylie.
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