Moving on or moving back?

The Guardian published a piece on the multiple deprivation indices available from the Office of National Statistics. While always keeping in mind the maxim of lies and damned lies plus the need to understand the quid pro quos that accompany any data set it gave me pause for thought.

One of the advantages of working cross sector is that you can see how applications in one can have a use in the other. Take Customer Relationship Management for instance. CRM is pretty  much a given in most private companies and in larger third sector organisations. I spent a lot of time in 2010 working with small to micro companies who were convinced that there IT issues were down to their lack of understanding of social media and, for reasons I could never quite fathom, a deep desire to learn to use Dreamweaver. Yet many of them hadn’t even got the most rudimentary CRM.

You would ask the same question repeatedly: who are your customers? The answer was often vague and involved gesticulations indicating a geographical area which sometimes involved areas of sky. The question that always focussed attention was: if you wanted to sell up tomorrow, what’s your business worth?  Once stock values and order book have been taken into account, what is it worth? Very often there was an accompanying discussion around why they needed to keep so much stock.

My point? One of the implications of personalised budgets and co-produced services is that front line organisations will need to get to know their customers. Was that a sharp intake of breath I heard? Was that a muttered chorus; “of course we know our customers, that’s the advantage of using service providers that are close to the community”. Well, yes it is but the days when there were block payments for fixed numbers of clients and performance measured in outputs have been going for a while, and now they’re well and truly gone.

The new world of “Big Society” and citizen choices is, in reality, one of fixed price interventions where individual clients are invoiced and performance is measured in outcomes. What does this mean in reality? It means that front line organisations will need to know which clients were marketed using which channels,  which clients responded to the marketing by accessing services, which clients were repeat customers and which were lost and why. What were the complimentary services delivered to those clients and what were the organisations that delivered them?

This is not going to reside in anybody’s head; if it does, then just like the small to micro businesses answers to questions will involve a vague waving of arms. The idea of going out to buy a copy of Sage CRM or subscribing to some cloud based service instead of using the Access database put together by someone’s nephew may seem anachronistic but the truth is that working smarter does not just mean spending an hour or two a day on a social media channel. It means leveraging the power of the data generated by an organisations activity to understand the client base.

Of course, as the Guardian piece demonstrated, there’s more data out there: there’s data published by national government, local government and other organisations and much of it is open. That means free to use if only we know what to do with it. I’ve speculated in the past about the kinds of interfaces that there need to be to enable third sector organisations and community groups to access open data and suggested that there needs to be an interface layer, a geek layer, that provided a new kind of expert; one that understood how to relate to communities and community groups but could apply a level of expertise to make open data available and relevant. A great post by Michelle Ide-Smith   inspired by work from Tim Davies, the Oxford based researcher who’s work I’ve followed for some time, speculated on the use of personae as a way of understanding the potential beneficiaries.

Slowly we are building a picture of how intelligent use of information technology can support the delivery of services in the new world of third sector commerce. Big Society thinking doesn’t just get us to focus on how we function as communities. The fact that it is underpinned by devastating public sector cuts that go as deep as traditional voluntary front line organisation means that those organisations that survive must work in a different way. They will have to learn not only how to think commercially but how to codify their knowledge in a way that enables the organisation to demonstrate its capacity at the same time as benefiting its clients. In the same way they will have to learn how to mine the publically available data to make themselves smarter and figure out ways in which they can make their own data open.

The world we live in is challenging the way we have done things for the a significant part of the last century, we can argue whether the pre Great War mentality is the right one for the 21st Century but that’s not going to get us through the here and now. Personally I think we’re heading in the wrong direction, backwards not forwards; but that’s for another blog another time.


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