Several blog posts this week, combined, pinpoint what are arguably the two most influential trajectories for the impact of communication technologies on business these days: from real-time web to real-time business, and from social media to social business design.
Let’s start with the former. Referring to Salesforce.com founder and CEO Marc Benioff and his presentation at the Structure 09 conference in San Francisco last week, DigitalBeat claims that the real-time web is not only shaping the future of all computing but also that of business overall: “In business it’s real-time or it’s no time.” It goes on by quoting Benioff: “Customers (…) expect everything to happen right away— if they update their data, they expect those changes to appear immediately, not an hour or two in the future. (…) Any concept of batch or delay in development or execution, I think, will not be tolerated by customers anymore. (…) Even in development, customers are demanding now that they want to be able to build in that sandbox and deploy immediately, instantly, no delay.”
Sure, you may say, customers always want it faster and cheaper, that’s not news. But the implications Benioff talks about are more profound and affect the way organizations operate and adapt their business models to the new and ever-changing demands of immediacy. Some examples: Zara, the Spanish clothing chain, uses customer feedback to develop new clothes, in near real-time. TCHO, the San Francisco-based chocolatier, relies on continuous flavor development and customer feedback to drive constantly evolving versions of its dark chocolate, with variations emerging as often as every 36 hours. Status updates, embedded news feeds, and Twitter apps have injected some “real-time-ism” into professional online social networks such as LinkedIn and XING, converting them from address books to conversational circles, from networking forums to collaboration platforms. Zappos, the online retailer, successfully combines real-time customer service on Twitter with near-real-time delivery – having established a powerful, dynamic brand before letting its customers decide what business it was actually in. And Skittles, the candy brand, ingeniously replaced its corporate homepage with the 'Interweb,' a collage of real-time social web conversations not by but about Skittles – essentially recreating itself as the first ever real-time brand. All these models show that the news industry’s big conundrum applies to every other business, too: It used to be that there’s nothing more boring that yesterday’s newspaper. Now there’s nothing more boring than today’s. When you relaunch your business model, product, brand identity, web site – it’s already too late. Real-time beats planning to the punch.
Real-time businesses therefore must get rid of long-term strategy plans, product road maps, goals and objectives, and all the other superfluous documents that distract organizations from focusing on their true mission – the here and now. Most of these documents are inward anyway and can be easily replaced with one strong and permanent mission statement (which, if your company culture is intact, does not even need to be verbalized).
Real-time business is inherently social – there is no real-time without social. The more businesses open up their organizations and invite external voices into their inner sanctum, the more real-time they will become. Getting social will help companies gather customer intelligence in real-time and use it to move faster. In the future, real-time businesses may deliver before their customers even articulate their needs. And they will provide immediate value without immediate return, in other words they will over-deliver – free for now but with a material or immaterial return later. What is the inadvertent business model for media might be a fulcrum for companies that manage to achieve a brand premium through customer participation as a part of real-time product development: “building a plane in the air,” together with their customers.
"The process is the product,” as Trendwatching writes in its latest report, in which it also claims that the real-time the web is breeding a new quest for longevity or “Foreverism”: “the new popularity of technology that allows consumers to find, follow, interact and collaborate forever with anyone & anything.” It’s not as paradoxical as it may sound. Living real-time means living in the ongoing – forever. If everything happens in real-time, nothing is ever final and always in permanent beta. Conversely, if everything lasts forever on the Google web (your emails, networks, conversations) and your digital presence is only as good as your latest search results and Twitter updates, you better utter some digital impressions NOW.
And yet, what’s required is a shift in thinking and ultimately a new organizational model that goes beyond feeding the social media beast on the real-time web: “If the big picture is business transformation, it's going to take more than a few tweets to get there,” David Armano writes in his post on ‘social business design,’ and argues that ““Social Businesses are those which are designed from top to bottom as a reflection of the world we all live in online today. A business where everyone is connected and able to contribute but also where the right tools are available to them to do all of this with business intent from the beginning.”
For centuries, organizations have considered it their task to conquer chaos and manage people, now they have to embrace the sudden chaos instigated by unmanageable throngs of instantly and elegantly self-organized individuals. Whether that will lead to the end of organizations remains to be seen; it will definitely lead to the end of organizations as we know them.