What could a post-digital company look like?

How deeply does a company need to integrate social media and big data before it truly becomes ready for the challenges of the post-digital age?

For both personal and professional reasons, the idea of what a post-digital company might actually look like has been on my mind quite a bit of late. A few of the links I've put in the weekly links round-ups on this blog have touched on the issue but have, I think, done no more than scratch the surface of the issue. What are the actually processes at work driving a business to become first digital and then post-digital? Can we build a narrative of corporate restructure that opens up that possibility?

There seem to be two major digitally-driven transformational pressures on businesses right now:

  1. The reshaping of business communications through the use of social media (and the loss of strict central control that entails)
  2. The potential for detailed, real-time business insights that Big Data opens up for sales, market research and product development

Oddly enough, those are broadly the topics covered by the last couple of years of NEXT conferences: Game-Changers and Data Love. But what happens when you throughly incubate these ideas with an organisation? What sort of company might emerge?

On one hand, you have the potential for incredibly fluid social communications both internally and externally within a business. And that makes the business more porous – the edges of it become less defined, as the communication with partner and client businesses becomes more fluid. Indeed, even internally, the rigid silos of different divisions and business units start to break down, as the implementation of social business techniques within the organisation. Social business opens up the possibility of moving from primitive funnel models of lead generation to more sophisticated forms of customer support cycles, where as much energy goes into managing relationships with existing customers (and, thus, potential advocates) as it does to trawling the internet for potential clients.

On the other, you have the potential for incredible – and incredibly real-time – customer and business insight that big data begins. Even just playing with aggregate, non-personally identifiable data can give a very different set of insights into customer behaviour desire, and satisfaction than previous methods of accessing those ideas ever has. And that has implications for everything from product development, to customer support, market, sales, recruitment…

In concert, they should make for a better informed, more communicative business, that can use all the networks of information and relationship contained within its staff far more effectively.

Now, these are both ideas that can be “bolted on” to existing business – grabbed by a single department and integrated into their work – but nobody else's. Customer support might grab big data, and marketing social media. But that's doing the equivalent of bunging a few thousand to a local charity and calling it a corporate social responsibility programme, or the surface-level “astro-turfing” that many companies did with the advent of the green movement. It'll get you some results, but it won't really change your business. And that's fine, as far as it goes. But it only takes one competitor to adopt a deeper approach to using these tools for you to lose any competitive edge from it – and it's often harder to go from a surface-level implementation to something more profound that to do it from a standing start, because there's corporate culture issues to be unlearnt. And changing corporate culture is hard; doubly so when you have to correct a mistake.

Now, right at this moment, we're still in a place where many businesses are only allowing social media a small foothold in the business. And few have yet got to grips with what big data might actually mean for them. But that's fine. Businesses are often inherently conservative entities and it takes them time to adapt to new changes. Indeed, different industries move at different rates, and so some industries are further through this transformation than others. But we're seeing some businesses rally start to integrate from the inside out – and some of them are speaking at NEXT in May.

It's only once these changes occur that you have the potential for a business to become post-digital. The digital tools that we have now start to fade away into business-as-usual, and the attention shifts towards the content being transmitted, or collected within, them. Once they're there – once digital tools are as throughly integrated into the business as the telephone or the sales conference – then we'll start to see something really interesting emerging. What products or services will a truly post-digital organisation offer? And where will the most dramatic innovations come from? Small organisations with more ability to transform themselves quickly, or the the first major international corporation to be able to work through the pain of a root-and-branch restructure to allow all these tools to fundamentally reshape how their business operates?