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Small, frequent, fine-grained interactions erode organisational boundaries.

How will organisations evolve in the face of mobile interaction patterns?

Interaction patterns are changing. Mobile devices support small, simple, focused interactions. People are happy to have dozens, or even hundreds, of such exchanges every day.It’s easy to interact whenever the urge occurs.

And the “internet of things” takes this even further. Now physical objects are about to start engaging in this ongoing dialogue.

That seems obvious enough. But what does it mean for organisations?

I think these small, frequent, fine-grained interactions are eroding the organisational boundary. Each one chips away at the edge, breaking up the clean line that many organisations like to place between themselves and their external environment. 

They do this in two ways:

Firstly, fine-grained interactions break transactional boundaries. Most organisations are set up to accommodate tight, well-defined transactions. Their systems are built around transactional interfaces. Their processes are defined by transactional lifecycles. They pass information around in transaction-sized chunks. 

Fine-grained interactions blur these boundaries. It’s not always obvious just when a transaction has begun or ended. Just where in the conversation did this cease to be an enquiry and start to become a sale? When did the sale conclude and it become post-sales support? 

The customer doesn't care, but a lot of organisations still do.

Secondly, fine-grained interactions open up a network of informal collaboration.It’s no longer a simple conversation between insiders and outsiders, between an organisation and its customers. 

Brand advocates, not part of the organisation but with some emotional investment in it, may chip in along the way.Reviewers and other impartial advisers may provide key information and supplementary services. 

The customer’s friends and social network will have their say. The boundary between customer and supplier has become very unclear.

How can an organisation respond to this trend?  How can it operate effectively when it no longer has a clean boundary? 

I see four imperatives:

  • Devolve power to the edges. People are able to make the finely tuned judgements needed to deal with fuzzy boundaries. So the people in close contact with customers need to be given the power to exercise their judgement.
  • Give people the tools they need. Now is not the time to be restricting people’s access to social networks and other interaction tools. If your customers are on these networks, then your people need to be able to interact with them. 

    Rather than trying to hold back the dam, organisations need to be actively exploring how to integrate these tools with their core systems.

  • Give people the insight they need. People who are immersed in the complexity at the fuzzy boundary can find it very difficult to maintain awareness of the bigger picture. They can’t hope to see all the interactions which are going on around them. 

    They’ll probably even struggle to understand all the interactions which a single customer has had with the organisation. This is where the centre can help most: it can provide the analytical muscle to monitor the wider environment, identify segments and trends, and set clear corporate objectives.

  • Automate the standard stuff. When the organisation’s main business was about handling transactions, processing orders, etc, you could get away with expecting people to drive these processes. 

    Now that the main business is about engaging in fast, frequent, fine-grained customer interactions, you need to let people focus their time on assimilating the wider insight and engaging with customers. Devolve the routine details to machines.

None of this is earth shattering. It makes sense in just about any business environment.But in a period of transition, of rapidly changing interaction patterns, it is doubly sensible.

The alternative is to try to contain the changes; to lock down the organisational boundary behind firewalls and tightly defined interfaces; to centralise power. This might work in some circumstances – when selling well-defined commodities or when you have a monopoly in the marketplace – but it fails when your customers want to engage in conversation.

This all implies change for the typical IT department. They will see moves such as:

  • A shift to the cloud. Large volumes of interactions, with accompanying fluctuations in workloads, require the scalability and flexibility of the cloud.So does the emphasis on insight and analytics. This in turn suggests that most technical operations will be outsourced to specialist cloud service providers.
  • A shift in skills. People will become more focused on application integration and business architecture, on partner management, on analytics. There’ll be less focus on technical architecture and operations, as that’s outsourced to the cloud.
  • A finer-grained application architecture.The application architecture must reflect fine-grained interaction patterns.Integration with social networks and small mobile apps will become key, as will the ability to provision and reconfigure services rapidly.

I’ve said it before: clouds are grey fuzzy things that rain on you. Yet organisations are becoming more cloudlike every day – they rely on clouds for their compute power, and their boundaries are beginning to resemble clouds.

Graham Oakes

Published 21 June, 2012 by Graham Oakes

Graham Oakes helps people untangle complex technology, processes, relationships and governance. He is contributor to Econsultancy.

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