The information age has not only begun. In the meantime, we are right in the midst of it. This is not a fad, a short-lived trend, but an irreversible development that is picking up speed and increasing relevance - with consequences for each individual, for companies and for society as a whole.
Opinions are voiced that are warning of overburdening, the threatening lack of control, while advocating stricter rules and regulations. Others hold the opinion that overburdening is one of the most important driving forces of civilizational progress, and we are on the threshold of a new evolutionary stage. Can or must information be controllable? Or is participation far more important? And how should companies position themselves in order to cope with a plethora of information?
What characterizes human beings? Philosophers argue that man is characterized by the capacity to think, and by consciousness. Or by the capability to act and communicate through language. Bureaucracy creates locational coordinates consisting of hard facts: personal data, place of residence, social security number. Finally, there are the societal and cultural contexts in which we live: family, friends, work, associations, clubs, etc. We interact, communicate, and engage in dialogs. Human beings are social beings.
With the Internet, and especially and advance of the social web, these developments are taking on an entirely new dimension. In the information society era human beings are exposed to a tremendous plethora of information. We know how the brain processes information, categorizes and prioritizes and naturally encounters limits to its capacity. "My head can't keep up", professes Frank Schirrmacher, coeditor of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, in his book Payback. Warum wir im Informationszeitalter gezwungen sind zu tun, was wir nicht tun wollen, und wie wir die Kontrolle über unser Denken zurückgewinnen (Blessing, 2010). And he also comments that he "is no longer up to the mental demands of our day and age". Schirrmacher sketches a dark, somber scenario, one of a "society that is monitored, calculated down the last details and steered by a cold power."
Sascha Lobo, alpha blogger and net journalist strongly criticizes Schirrmacher's rejection: "Over many years the intellectual elite was convinced of increasingly approaching the fulfillment of a deep human need: the desire to be able to control the world that surrounds us." This ability to exert control does not exist.
From mass media to media masses
Peter Sondergaard, Senior Vice President, Gartner Research, identified four forces that are driving this new era:
„This is now the era of mass collaboration driven by consumerization of IT. The new era brings with it urgent and compelling forces - the cloud, social networking, exploding information and mobility […] brought together, they are revolutionising business and society.“
According to Sondergaard these factors and instances have innovative as well as disruptive effects. Innovative, because users can now - at all times and from any location - access data, share information, form networks, communicate globally and interact constantly. Disruptive, because our traditional understanding of communication is quite simply no longer valid. Anybody and everybody can send, publish, receive and share. It would appear that communication can no longer be steered and controlled. Communication is beyond the influence of the individual, but also beyond the influence of companies.
Companies must cope with the following reality: "The customer is everywhere! And so must your business be as well."
The brand no longer belongs to companies alone
If customers are everywhere, how can companies respond? To begin with, companies and people have one thing in common: they interact and communicate. Far more, however, companies operate and move within the contextualities of all of their employees, suppliers, customers, multiplicators, shareholders and stakeholders.
The classic definition of an organization is that of a system that pursues specific goals and is comprises of individuals or groups. In the day and age of blogs and social news pages each and every individual, whether employee or customer, can become a brand ambassador, a press spokesperson or a critic. In this context Sascha Lobo regards the classic understanding of controlled communication as being put out of force:
"The loss of control is also the key topos in changes in brand strategies: brands no longer belong to companies alone; a good share is interactively shaped and designed by users."
From product to communication competition
Companies must learn that they have basically long since been engaged in competition revolving around communication and no longer in competition based on products. Now, reputation management is the key strategic task and not advertising as such. Most organizations, however, are not prepared and positioned for this. Companies place their main emphasis on the production of goods and the rendering of services. Goods are manufactured according to their life cycles and services rendered according to demand. Products are produced professionally and along highly standardized lines, including their storage, administration and invoicing. Communication measures, by contrast, are often not coordinated in terms of content, factual matters, or their formal or temporal aspects.
Take the example of an SME with several locations and an international orientation. In such a scenario the company will have to process customer and employee information for various different destinations, adjust sales literature in line with the given cultural requirements, and localize product descriptions. And all this not only in print, but also via web or even mobile. This can no longer be efficiently organized by way of analog workflows.
Admittedly, a number of companies have deployed systems and technologies in order to integrate their customers and address them across all channels, as well as having defined processes and protagonists, media and targets. They are communicating in a sustained manner, efficiently, transparently, and are able to measure and track their activities. We do know, however, that massive improvement potentials are waiting to be tapped in many instances.
Information, the raw material of the future
Even in the case of companies that are already deploying efficient and integrated publishing solutions these companies will still have to respond to ever-new demands and requirements of their users. There are more than 2.2 billion Internet users today. More than 50 percent of these users are organized in social networks and share and viralize information. In future, customers and their needs, influencer and their topics, or all the information on brands, goods, services and companies that arises and is communicated will have to be understood as a relevant context and anticipate accordingly. Is all this a pipe dream, in some distant future? No way: Google, for example, had already acquired a patent in 2008 that adjusts mobile advertising to situational environment conditions such as temperature, air humidity or ambient acoustic patterns. Accordingly, advertising for umbrellas is run specifically when it rains, while ice cream parlors would appear prominently during heat waves.
Today, it is no longer a matter of simply publishing, of reaching the general public, far more, what is called for is interaction, monitoring, measuring results and engaging in dialogs with customers. Companies must create the preconditions, and not only send out contents by way of web, print and mobile offerings, but must also use these options as bidirectional channels. Markets are conversations. And the context is the space in which these conversations take place.