Friday, September 05, 2008

Online is a service option, not just a media channel

As I mentioned at the end of my earlier post about the Googlisation of the US election, we're now entering a phase in the internet's development where it is shifting from being a media channel towards a service channel.

Many organisations in the private sector have already recognised this and I am seeing the beginnings of this understanding in the public sector as well.

When the internet was first popularised by web browsers it was a technical toy, with the first websites for organisations commonly developed by programmers in technology teams and a few IT-savvy marketers.

Within five years the Marketing and Communications team began to take a leading interest, with a ferocious tussle for control of the platform between technologists and communicators taking place in many organisations. This battle is still going on in many organisations, where IT refuses to let go of certain aspects of web that sit more readily in the communications area, such as
  • design (including usability),
  • navigation (and a correlating interest in information architecture, which is more of a psychological discipline than a technical one), and
  • rich media development (which is often hamstrung by technical concerns online, unlike the radio and television experience where technology serves the medium).

While these battles continue, the internet has moved on, with the introductions of organisations whose sole or major service channel is online, including well known organisations such as eBay, Amazon and Second Life (yes it's a service channel!) and hundreds of thousands of lessor known, but still very successful players.

For these organisations online isn't an adjacent to other channels, it is their primary or sole channel, representing the core of their business.

This has led into Web 2.0, the communal empowerment of the web, which has seen the ease of generating and interacting with content skyrocket, lowering the barriers to creativity and demonstrating comprehensively that people want to participate and if the medium is sufficiently simple they will.

This has led to the current online 'mashup', where across the global internet we can see aspects of all generations of the web, technologists clinging to power, communicators using olde worlde 'shout marketing' techniques, sales organisations pumping products through ever easier purchasing funnels and the growing swell of social networks and people power.

Naturally many organisations are confused and bewildered by the complexity and scope of potential online options, most simply do not understand, with top management mired in views shaped by their experience and education.

The tendency for all of us is to fall back on 'safe' classical models, treating the online medium as a 'technology', a media channel add-on, a basic form-filling medium or a time-waster for habitual networkers.

However as billion dollar companies can be built (or destroyed) and the outcomes of political careers changed through the agency of the internet, it is a far more serious enabler than many organisations have realised.

My view is that it is now time to rethink how our organisations regard the online channel, casting aside preconceptions and experiential models and reflecting on the internet's relationship with us, rather than our relationship with the internet.

From my perspective I view online as an engagement channel - combining service delivery, consultation and communication into a single medium, an enabling driver at the core of how organisations interact with their stakeholders, customers, staff and shareholders.

Where customers do not have internet access the online channel still facilitates and support relationships, enabling improvements in internal information sharing, efficiency and interactions between organisations, thereby improving the experience of engaging via phone or face-to-face channels.

Many organisations are not sufficiently mature to have restructured around the internet as a central enabling driver and I see the online channel commonly 'owned' and 'managed' by Communications, IT or, at the intranet level, in HR.

I believe there is now a strong case in the public sector to begin shifting ownership into the service delivery area, using the internet as both an effective, lower-cost service option and as an enabler under telephony and face-to-face channels.

IT and Communications still remain involved, as their expertise is required to develop and shape the systems and messages delivered, but the bulk of measurable business outcomes are in service delivery areas - including interaction and delivery time metrics, customer satisfaction, service consistency and business efficiency.

At my agency, who I see as one of the leaders in thinking around the online channel, if still managing the technology challenges and building an understanding of how to apply the channel to address business goals, we've just made an internal shift reflecting the online channel being a service option.

We've shifted the management of our online channel such that our Service Delivery area owns the service delivery aspect of our online presence, with the delivery on their goals facilitated by my team in the Communications area and the technology team.

We're also beginning the process of increasing the Service Delivery area's involvement and influence over our intranet, which extends its focus on facilitating customer service provision through supporting front-line staff.

I am very positive about these changes, they are enabling us to make some immediate service quality improvements - some by managing customer expectations, some by changing system behaviours.

Over the next several years I expect to see enormous business value delivered for the government as this model becomes firmly embedded, both for customer engagement to improve our customer approach, as a channel for effective service delivery as well as information provision and by enabling staff to provide ever-improving customer service.

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