Corporate life has long featured a gulf between the interests, motivations, budgets and actions of the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) department and, well, everyone else. This was true as long as communication technologies were largely hidden aspects of how humans interact. The notorious “Big Room” housing the company contact centre was an obvious manifestation of how separate ICT was from the rest of the company, on strategic and practical levels.
In the last decade, however, social media has turned communication on its head. The results of the social media shift are visible in the corporate boardroom, where profoundly changing consumer behaviour is forcing CIOs, COOs, CEOs and CFOs into collective responsibility for a company's strategic development and operational successes. Today, the bottom line is pretty simple: business success requires an ICT department that is fully integrated into the wider business strategy.
Much of this change in strategic orientation is a reflection of the extraordinary flattening out of communications that is occurring across the world. But in South Africa, this revolution is wrapped up in the equally powerful mobile access revolution. The mobile phone is taking its place as our primary connectivity tool thanks to its ability to by-pass many of the frustrating infrastructure hindrances that continue to challenge the common man. Add spiralling mobile use to the general Social Media boom and you have a communication relationship between brand and consumer that is so fluid it's almost impossible to pin down.
This pattern has created an extremely challenging communication context for companies, where increasingly demanding consumers are expecting uniform levels of service and information across multiple channels (fax, email, Facebook, Twitter etc.) and devices (computers, smartphones, mobile phones, iPads, Kindles and iPhones). Brands simply have to cater to all these channels and devices, and most consumers couldn't care less what technical challenges have to be dealt with to deliver the service. If the communication isn't happening on their terms, they are increasingly likely to jump to a better equipped rival.
Thus companies are being forced to establish a consolidated, enterprise wide communications architecture able to cope with any communications context and unfettered by operational ring-fencing. There are many strategic and operational benefits to be gained from such consolidation; apart from the crucial ability to talk to consumers on their terms, a consolidated system offers the kind of high level strategic lens that allows decision makers to truly understand and assess what's going on in each division or business unit. Also, if executed correctly, it has the ability to dramatically reduce the overall cost of doing business.
With so many variables at play, it’s one thing to decide on a consolidated communications architecture and quite another to actually put it into practice. In South Africa, some companies are baulking at the challenge and appear to be hoping the new communications context will simply disappear and stop bothering them, while others are literally throwing the kitchen sink at making sure their systems are not only able to cope with today's demands, but are also able to seamlessly scale (up and down) according to future needs.
For those embracing the challenge, the first crucial step is to understand the full scope of the market driver's influencing the decision. Does the brand need to deliver better service across the board, or in a specific area? Are customers pushing for key changes in communications options? What are those changes? Has reporting become a cost-intensive internal nightmare? Every business case is different, and it is essential that decision makers fully understanding the fine details of their specific market context before making any bold consolidation moves. As always, it is essential that tactics are informed by a strong strategy if they are going to deliver the expected results.
Once the strategic backdrop has been put in place, the next step is to find a strong partner to work with - that means a proven company with a track record in migrating clients from silo-orientated communications architecture to a consolidated one. The quality of such a partnership is especially important because of the intense, long term nature of the exercise. Implementing a consolidated communication system is at the very least a one year project, and is likely to end up in the 12 – 24 month range in most cases. It's a mission-critical transition that can and does deliver massive savings and sharpened market performance - but never if approached half heartedly. A partner that understands the terrain and has proven credentials will take considerable responsibility for successful execution onto its shoulders, and will also bring vital insights into elements of the process, such as internal communication.
Given the high stakes and challenges involved, it's easy to see why some companies are simply avoiding the consolidation imperative. But when one considers the rate of change currently prevalent in how, why, where and when the world is communicating, Executives must heed the consolidation call in order to address this challenge.