Customer information (continued): If we build it, will they come?

One of the questions that keeps popping up when people discuss “giving the customer’s information back to the customer” is:

Is the customer ready for this?

This is not a trivial point. The social and cultural aspects of such a move need to be thought out and prepared for, one of the reasons why this hasn’t happened as yet. So let’s take a look at what has been happening, but perhaps with a slightly sideways perspective.

One. We have started the process of giving the customer control of transaction execution. Any purchase/fulfilment on the web, even checking in for a flight. We have started the process of providing the customer transparency of the transaction’s status. Fedex. UPS. Amazon. eBay. Everyone’s got it. We have started the process of providing the customer transparency of information held about the customer, in terms of Freedom of Information or Data Protection or whatever. Now all we are talking about is transferring the responsibility of looking after the customer’s own relatively static information to the customer. How different is this from my being in control of my preferences for Amazon or eBay or the Wall Street Journal online. Establish who I am. Indicate what I am interested in, and not interested in. Go through some process of validating my financial status formally; an example would be getting “verified” status on PayPal. And bingo, there I am.

From a consumerisation perspective we have already taken step one of “giving the customer’s information back to the customer”. What consumer product/service providers have not yet done is step two, allowing the customer to share information about vendor A-related activity with vendor B. And this will happen. Despite the wholly predictable pushback from the product/service vendors, who lose a layer of lock-in as a result.
From an institutional perspective there is much to do, given where we are now. The vendor-lock-in argument is even more compelling here, with institutions largely unable to accept or sometimes even comprehend the implications of such a move, that of allowing the customer to share “your” activity information with a competitor. But it will happen. Only a matter of time.

Before we even go into the nature of the technology underpinning all this, in terms of identity formats and microformats, public and private keys, the nature of the encryption, the federated versus centralised models, how trust is conferred and authenticated, what kind of 1000lb gorillas are needed, the role of biometrics, the need for multifactor authentication processes, transaction guarantees and the process involved in guaranteeing, privacy protection, appropriateness of solutions for anti-money-laundering and identity theft protection and the economics of large scale provision of related infrastructure, we need to get the first question answered. Is the customer ready for this?

I can only speak for myself. Would I like to share my eBay activity with Christies or Bonhams or Sothebys? Would I like to share my British Airways activity with Lufthansa and United and Virgin? My hotel and car activity? My books and music activity? Yes yes yes.

I get to control my core “static” information. Who else knows this as well as I do? I get it verified by an independent arbiter, much like I need a birth certificate to get a passport. I choose whom I share what with.

I choose. I look after. I am the beneficiary.

That’s the key.

Then I can get all the downstream benefits of collaborative filtering and recommendations. Then my marketplaces get all the benefits of democratised reputation and rating and profiling and prediction.

A lot has to change. And will change. Provided the plan is: I choose. I look after. I am the beneficiary.

Customer information

I remember being at a conference some years ago, when I was asked “Of all the things that are being hyped right now, what do you dislike most?”I replied “Customer Relationship Management”, arguing that the models I saw were more about Customer Exploitation Management than about Relationship Management. You don’t seek to exploit people you have a relationship with.

A couple of years ago, in conversation with Doc Searls, we touched on similar themes. He recounted a tale of the time he spent in Africa, and how markets there worked on relationship first and transaction second, in terms of the way the conversations flow. Something along the lines of “How’s your uncle’s wisdom tooth doing?” “Did your son-in-law finally learn to drive?” “Did you hear about Nathaniel’s adventure?”

Doc posited that the relationship-then-only-when-called-for-transaction route was the way conversations should go, and that we had somehow lost our way in the West. Having spent half my life in India, this resonated with me.

The next day, I heard Dick Hardt do his Subterranean Homesick Blues bit with Identity. For those who haven’t seen it, it’s a must. You can find it here. And I walked away loving it. Yes, why can’t I share my Amazon buying profile with other booksellers? Why can’t I share my airline and hotel information more usefully across multiple providers? Isn’t it my information in the first place?

And rattling around in the back of my mind was some of the stuff in Malcolm Gladwell’s Tipping Point arguments. [Wow. I was wondering how best to describe the book and the arguments. Of course. Wikipedia, what else?]. There was a sense that connectors, mavens and salesmen demonstrated weak-interaction behaviour in terms of soft-hands non-exploitative relationships with their network of influence. Which worked so much better than the MLM and pyramid selling techniques we are all more used to.

I’m posting this for a very simple reason. Trying to gauge what people are doing about this, the need to give customer information back to the customer. Who’s doing it rather than just talking about it?

Identity and authentication and permissioning are critical to the buildout of 21st century enterprise applications.

Using the web at work

There’s regular debate on whether people should be “allowed personal use” of the web while at work. While dinosaur organisations try and block this altogether and talk of employees “stealing time” this way, thankfully most don’t.

There’s always a liberty versus licence issue in situations like this. Even the liberal organisations tend to have some controls, usually to provide prudent proof that rogue employees weren’t doing something illegal, and so everyone tends to have some filtering and blocking.

Where I work, the debate rages every now and then, usually catalysed by a site being blocked for ostensibly good reasons but having unintended consequences. Like having to go home to get work done.

Thanks to Jackie Danicki for reminding me of this via one of her recent posts. She pointed me towards a discussion on the subject at TechDirt, which fundamentally made the point that all the studies supporting control of surfing at work were done by firms somehow related to the sale of control software. No surprise there.

Why is it that so many firms buy this argument, that staff should somehow be blocked from doing anything but work at work? The only explanation I can find is that even in the 21st century, people spend more time trying to measure and control inputs rather than outputs. More fodder for Fossilfools, I guess.

I thought that people get paid for results rather than effort. Analogous to JM Keynes’ engine of healthy enterprise being profit rather than thrift, controlling and monitoring inputs alone is not just dangerous but ultimately counterproductive. You might as well get knowledge workers to punch cards on their way in and their way out.

Which is fine, but then firms have to bear the consequences. Clockwatching. Work to rule. Unionisation. Contractual commitments to pay overtime. Jobsworth attitudes. Tunnel vision. You treat people like machines, you should expect mechanical results.

Why dangerous? If things go this way, I guess I can foresee a time where spouses and children start class actions against firms for providing their partner/parent with a BlackBerry. Stealing personal and family time….. I won’t laugh, it could happen yet. Oh frabjous day calloo callay.

And the correct fossilised response would be? To continue issuing the Blackberries, but telling staff they are banned from using them at home or outside office hours. Ricardo Semler come back all is forgiven.

As long as people “get their job done” and “do no evil” there should be an absence of inappropriate controls. Unwise firms will have to watch their key assets, their people, leave otherwise.

Blogs entice people to write down what they know

David Weinberger’s comments following his recent trip to Germany make interesting reading; I particularly like the suggestion of emergent osmosis from within the organisation to the extended enterprise. It seems to reflect the way we tried things out at the bank. His post can be found here.

People don�t have to get permission to do something useful. Great quote from Jimmy Wales

Every now and then, the internal blogosphere where I work gets heated with arguments about open and closed content. What works, what doesn’t and why.While researching something else, I came across this interview with Jimmy Wales, and liked the way the social aspect of the wiki was described.