Generally, any large company with a varied set of products has a communications department, but the name doesn’t accurately reflect what that unit does. I think this is about to change in a major way as technologies come together from a variety of companies to finally make “communications” not only more accurate, but also a much more strategic element of the modern company. I don’t think I’m the only person who sees a massive change coming. IBM has announced its intent to acquire Now Factory, which could give it a lead position in this new world of communications. Let’s talk about why communications departments don’t communicate and how that will change dramatically in the coming years.
Communication Doesn’t Scale
The definition of communication is basically “the exchange of information between people,” and the word that communications organizations left out of their charter is “exchange.” Communication is bidirectional, except when used in a corporate context, where it can be more like somewhat personalized advertising with little back channel. The reason for this is because historically, communications–real communications–didn’t scale. With small companies and before the Industrial Revolution, those that provided goods knew their customers intimately. But as we scaled up manufacturing, we didn’t scale up our ability to actually communicate with the people we served.
Certainly, you might have a dialogue between the sales rep and the customer, or an executive might have developed a relationship with a customer, but these were respectively tied to either a sales event or a problem that had been escalated to executive levels. Neither situation constituted a real dialogue between the parties. Apple tried to abstract the customer and had its CEO, Steve Jobs, basically act as a customer advocate, which was impressively successful in that he both seemed to have a good sense of what people wanted and/or how to convince people that they wanted what Apple sold. But this was less communications than it was gaming human behavior. Once again, the problem was scaling communications, and real dialogues didn’t scale.
Big Data, Analytics, Decision Engines (AI)
However, this is changing dramatically this decade. By next decade, communications–real communications–will separate the winning companies from those that struggle to survive. The four technologies that are changing the future of communications are social networks, personal information mining, analytics, and decision engines (artificial intelligence). Social networks capture interests, interactions and information about why a person does things. Personal information mining captures information about what a person does. Analytics pulls information together to form a valid opinion about what a person likes and what will alter their behavior (for instance, if you want them to buy or vote for something). Decision engines (such as IBM’s Watson project) pull the results together to create real-time dialogues with customers and executives that will scale, with the decision engine effectively doing a more accurate job of emulating both parties than Steve Jobs did at Apple.
This will allow customers to communicate with companies and executives to talk with customers, but in a way that scales both up and down. It will aggregate customer needs and auto-escalate problems with inbound information, and auto-customize and disseminate outbound communication with the decision engine in the middle, handling much of the load. Ironically, it will have taken us centuries and a ton of technology to restore the pre-Industrial Revolution connection between company and customer.
Wrapping Up: Scaling Apple
One of the unique aspects of Apple under Steve Jobs was the idea of a customer avatar. What made the company different was that Jobs himself successfully played that role by stepping in and making sure the company focused on the virtual customer that Steve had in his head. While we can’t yet accurately emulate Steve Jobs, we are close to being able to emulate customers.
I anticipate a future in which communications people craft avatars that auto-configure based on what is known about the customer to optimize the interaction. The other side of this is that you could also have avatars based on an abstract of customer information that the executives could talk to in order to reduce the number of decisions that are based on false assumptions about what the customer wants.
In the end, while technology undoubtedly caused companies to lose the ability to talk to customers, we are at the beginning of a period in which technology will correct that mistake.