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Customer-driven Business Innovation


In an increasingly hyper-competitive world, businesses look for every possible opportunity that can give them an edge over their competition. It’s no secret -- businesses that innovate survive and win, and those that don’t either die, don’t grow or become the walking dead.

But innovation isn’t easy. In fact, it is a challenge for most companies. There are many reasons for this – corporate culture, inertia, risk-aversion – but I think the biggest reason is “expertise.” The quote I have on my desktop wallpaper sums it up nicely:

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.”

– Shunryu Suzuki

I have this quote on my desktop because it’s a constant reminder that as I become more familiar with a technology or business skill, my ability to come up with innovative ideas about that technology or business area decreases. This is my totally unscientific thesis at a personal level; your experience may differ, but I suspect not by much. Since businesses are primarily just people doing stuff, the corollary is that businesses face the same issue – dearth of innovation due to expertise.

So if a business can’t look internally to its employees, where should it look for those innovative ideas that will propel it to the next level? (NO, the answer is definitely not consultants.) The best source of innovative ideas for your business is your customers and the best place to engage them for these ideas is online.

Online Community

Many companies have discovered that the same concepts that work amazingly well on a personal and social level with FaceBook and MySpace, work equally well for business (albeit without any sheep being thrown about in the process). Creating an online community for your business is an effective way to engage your customers online and provide a direct channel to them, bereft of the hierarchical and departmental boundaries that stifle discussion and open dialog offline. This should not come as a surprise, after all “people want to connect with people; people want to help and be helped” (Study: Tribalization of Business). Chances are that if you follow some basic guidelines, you can very quickly and easily engage your customers and make innovation an open and collaborative process.

Idea Network

One company that has been successful in creating such an online customer community is ExactTarget. The company has been a long-time sponsor of the DotNetNuke project (thanks!). The “3sixty” community site it created for its customers using DotNetNuke Professional Edition is a prime example of best practices for creating online communities recommended by HiveLive, a SAAS provider of enterprise online customer communities. Since 3sixty was created, the site has become a key competitive differentiator for ExactTarget resulting in over 100 customer-suggested feature innovations into its product. You can get the straight scoop on how ExactTarget achieved this by attending the free webinar “ExactTarget: Using DotNetNuke to Build an Interactive Business Community” on Aug. 26, 2009 (download a recording of the video by following the link if you are reading this after Aug. 26).ExactTarget 3sixty

While ExactTarget could have developed a custom ASP.NET solution for this site, it selected DotNetNuke because of its ability to easily integrate with existing web-based business applications while providing a robust platform for rapid application development. Let me stop myself right here and not get carried away discussing the merits of DotNetNuke as an excellent platform for building online communities. It is very tempting to look at creating such communities as a technology problem and delve into a discussion about features, API’s and such. But as Dion Hinchcliffe accurately points out in Twelve Best Practices for Online Customer Communities, “community is mostly not a technology problem.” Indeed, as he points out, platforms like DotNetNuke make it easy to create compelling communities. (If you are reading this on, you are looking at the best evidence to support this claim.) Creating successful online business communities is more an exercise in adapting your business to a new form of customer engagement and creating the social architecture for such a community.

In order to succeed, here is a summation of HiveLive’s recommendations:

Clear Goals

Best Practice #1: Build a community with clear goals in mind

Start with a narrow and tightly defined scope and develop the community structure from there. This is essential for rallying members and motivating them to contribute. Be prepared to expand the scope quickly as the community evolves.

Best Practice #2: Motivate your members

Online community members are power users, participants or spectators. Explore ways to keep power users engaged to ensure a steady stream of relevant and authentic content. This in turn will motivate others to play a more active role. Also, think of ways in which you can compensate participants. Compensation, does not have to be monetary – insider status, avatars, recognition, they all work.

Tight Scope
Design Thinking

Best Practice #3: Use Design Thinking Principles

Design Thinking is a process for practical, creative resolution of problems or issues that looks for an improved future result. Using this approach can establish ground rules and foster a culture of crowd-sourced innovation in an online community.

Best Practice #4: Build a Culture of Openness

Direct engagement through genuine interactions will yield significant benefits and convince more members to participate in the innovation process. Don’t try to control the conversation, listen more than you talk, and make sure the culture of openness is not just a façade. Although painful at first, such a culture is critical to the success of an online community.

Open Culture
Continuous Improvement

Best Practice #5: Remain Dedicated to Continuous Improvement

View your online community as a journey, instead of a technology initiative with a defined end-point. Committing to a posture of cultivation will yield tangible results in the form of a steady flow of innovative ideas from the community. This also builds trust and gives members a greater sense of ownership as their ideas and suggestions are realized.

Has your company created an online business community? Do share! What were the challenges you faced? What did you learn from the experience?

If you have not created an online business community yet, hopefully this post and the webinar will give you some ideas that will help guide you in the process.



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