Back to the future, the rebirth of the “Mom and Pop” business

May 10, 2009
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19204142 With all the current hype about social web, web 2.0, social media and social networking, it is easy for some people to simply wave it off as a fad. I personally believe that we are in fact on the brink of a fundamental change in the way businesses interact with customers, partners, suppliers and even employees. In the 1990’s we saw a transformational movement around business process re-engineering that did change the way businesses operated and even how a business looked at itself, its industry and its business strategy. Business strategy became something that needed to be actionable and flexible to respond to ever increasing global competition created by the transactional web. Out of that need we saw business analytics to drive informed decision making (and automated decision making to free up information workers for higher value tasks) and business process management software that facilitated near real time process flexibility. With the evolution of the web from just transactions to a social web, a series of new changes and forces were set in motion.

One of the key tenets of web 2.0 is that it spreads involvement and control across a broad base rather than the old centralized..

19204142 With all the current hype about social web, web 2.0, social media and social networking, it is easy for some people to simply wave it off as a fad. I personally believe that we are in fact on the brink of a fundamental change in the way businesses interact with customers, partners, suppliers and even employees. In the 1990’s we saw a transformational movement around business process re-engineering that did change the way businesses operated and even how a business looked at itself, its industry and its business strategy. Business strategy became something that needed to be actionable and flexible to respond to ever increasing global competition created by the transactional web. Out of that need we saw business analytics to drive informed decision making (and automated decision making to free up information workers for higher value tasks) and business process management software that facilitated near real time process flexibility. With the evolution of the web from just transactions to a social web, a series of new changes and forces were set in motion.

One of the key tenets of web 2.0 is that it spreads involvement and control across a broad base rather than the old centralized model (and its expansion is viral and uncontrollable). We are creating a new generation of socially aware and active people on the social web that is not defined by a specific age group. This in itself is very different from the relatively simple way to classify Baby boomers, Gen X, Y, etc. As this new social generation grows larger and increases influence, both in the workforce and as customers of other businesses, changes are happening. For example, we see the start of social CRM (very infant stage, mind you) because customers are congregating online and sharing good and the bad experiences about your brand. They also are tired of the prevalent paradigm that was in part created by the transactional CRM and customer service applications that business has implemented in an attempt to “manage” the customer relationship. The problem with this is simple: we want to talk to business when, where and how WE want to, not through some automated IVR system or other way defined by the company. This new attitude is growing and is impacting business today, whether the business is listening or not, by the way. My suggestion, listen.  

OK, I’ll get off my soap box and get to the point of this post. As I’ve observed tech trends for many years, I have noticed that in many ways old ideas or concepts often come back in fashion in some new way because of a change in technology. One example would be the move from mainframe to client/server and now to the internet. The mainframe gave IT control of systems and platforms which meant that employees had to use whatever IT provided them. The move to Client / Server moved control out of IT. Sure, IT could specify what software, hardware and platforms to use, but they couldn’t really enforce those specifications.

I remember doing a needs assessment for a client in 1997. When I started IT said the project we were defining would replace 8 systems throughout the business units involved. After spending 2 weeks with the business units I reported back that in fact we were replacing 38 systems, not 8. You see those business units had gone off and solved a multitude of business process problems with their own software run on their own severs, those solutions ranged from packaged applications to apps built on MS Access or other locally available tools / platforms. They were not “approved” platforms of course, but the business, in the name of getting their jobs done, did it anyway. With the move to internet applications control is shifting back to IT. IT can standardize on software, platforms and even provide standardized tools to allow end users to build their own mashups and applications, but all on a standardized solution. In many ways we’re back to the “mainframe” days except better and more flexible.

So as I said, history repeats itself. I was thinking about this and about the social enterprise of the future the other day, and it dawned on me that history was repeating itself again. Before the days of Walmart and the take over of franchises changed the way we interacted with stores, business was social. OK, maybe many of you aren’t old enough to remember this, but I do. I grew up in a small southern city and most of the places we shopped were owned and run by people we knew, parents of my school friends and others. The dry cleaners knew my mom and knew if she wanted starch or not, hangers or folded, etc. The butcher knew what cuts of meat we usually bought and would even put aside prime cuts for us if he thought it was something we might like. And certainly if there was something the store didn’t carry that we asked for, it would appear on the next visit. You see, the shop owners knew their customers personally, knew what they liked, wanted and would respond if they were asked to change something or get something different.

I think that the social enterprise has many of those same traits that the old “mom and pop” stores used to such advantage. It was all about knowing their customers and creating a personal experience every time we shopped there. That’s what a social enterprise is all about. Knowing your customer and interacting with them to create community, loyalty and trust. The social web provides the platform for us to build this type of enterprise to scale. Size of the business, one of the main reasons we lost that personal touch, doesn’t matter if businesses apply social tools and use the social connectivity created by the social web. The evolving world of social enterprise software carries the promise of enabling the use of social concepts and processes in a scaleable and manageable way.