Looking In, Looking Out

There are many paths to becoming a more agile business that is more collaborative, conversational, and aware of customer and market needs. Driven by big (and small) data, the mobile workforce, and socially savvy customers, it’s no longer a question that Outside-In (“OI”) forces can disrupt the ways we buy, sell, and interact. Instead, how leadership harnesses this disruption, and look at creative ways to empower their teams AND alter their daily routine becomes the new challenge – and opportunity.

The good news is that there are many companies to learn from, who have embraced digital and social channels to reach new audiences and engage with customers in ways that are more authentic and conversational. Why not apply some of these same techniques with an eye to our employees and partners – in other words transform our Inside-Out (“IO”) approaches and measures?

Culture + Data = Opportunity

For the past several years, forward-looking organizations have re-oriented their approaches and structures around the customer and the employees who serve them. They are allowing employees greater autonomy and equipping them with tools that help to make work more productive (and fun!), tap each other’s know-how, and foster greater understanding of the market. Some are embracing the virtual workplace and modern alignment frameworks like OKRs, and many are looking at ways to not only harness the power of their data, but also bring these insights to everyone who impacts the bottom line.

But if all business (eventually) have access to the latest tools, what differentiates leaders from laggards? The answer lies in how well leaders can gain clarity on what is most important, react quickly, and set up “experiments” across the organization to test premises and unearth the next breakthrough initiative. This is the ultimate payoff – not more data (from these experiments), but rather the right data, informing the right place to focus, and indicating the next step or steps to take.

Of course, this commitment requires hard work. It demands top-level vision, but more importantly local actors and evangelists to explore, test, and question what outside forces align to inside needs, and what inside ideas or products should be fastracked to capture emerging marketing opportunities.

IO Meet OI

Every business strategy has multiple facets, but at a high level you have elements that are directly touching customers and partners – the OI part – and the stuff inside our walls: the IO part. But while there are distinct activities and tools for each such as social profile management and campaign tools vs. internal collaboration platforms, good things happen when we look at ways to cross-pollinate and bring in relevant consumer ideas to our business environments. This has certainly been the case with trends like the mobile workforce and the adoption of tablet computers in fields like finance and medicine.

A helpful starting point for finding this balance is looking at what is common and what is different in IO tools vs. OI tools. The first similarity is a user-first design model, which tailors experiences to roles, anticipates the need for timely answers, and enables participants to connect and share with friends/colleagues is a key foundation. Second, as we experience in consumer apps and services ranging from Amazon to Foursquare to Fitbit, there’s tremendous value in delivering specific, simple to consume, social-ready insights and information (“small data”) to customers and teams that serve them.

In terms of differences, raving fans aside, the level of commitment when you are an employee versus a customer sets up differing expectations as well as tolerance levels when it comes to engagement. As an employee I may spend 10 minutes looking for a document on our company’s overseas travel policy on our intranet, but as a consumer there is no way would I spend that amount of time searching for similar information on my favorite travel website. At the same time, the role of culture, and what I know about other employees is typically much different than what I (Immediately) know about my customers, aspects that must inform a re-balanced business strategy.

Envisioning a more AGILE business

Time is money, as the saying goes. Historically if you took too long to reply to a customer complaint you risked losing that customer. Take too long today and that x-customer will tweet about it, post their gripe on Facebook and influence hundreds if not thousands of potential customers. Inside the organization, timeliness is equally important, whether it’s related to time to market, responding to a competitive threat, or meeting production deadlines for the holiday rush. That’s why leaders need to make data available to all employees and create the right culture and incentives, along with processes and tools, to become more responsive – to both internal and external constituents.

This begins by taking an ‘inside-out/outside-in’ view (IOOI) in your business planning, leadership development, and employee training. Listen to your customers, and take time to experience your product or process through their lens. Maybe even make them part of your planning process. More so, if you want to be among the leaders in customer engagement/loyalty/profitability, you need to mirror your external best practices in your internal culture and processes.

Leaders need to lead this charge by wiring up the systems to get just the right signals, and clear out time to focus on what the signals are saying. They need to ask themselves WHY as well – what was the spark that got them excited to start or join the company? what defines the brand value? what do the view as the next innovation?

When combined with a parallel examination of WHY customers (or other stakeholders) first got interested in your company, came back for more, started to develop a brand connection etc., we have a foundation to seeing both links and gaps.