The relational future of work


In recent years, mobile technologies and the Internet have laid the foundation for a very small-size, low-investment enterprise with the potential for managing very large numbers of relationships.

The impact of these new actors has been hard to grasp because we are used to thinking about work from a different perspective. Our thinking arises from a make-and-sell economic model. Most managers still subscribe to this and think that the core of creating value is to plan and manage a supply chain. A supply chain is a system of assets and transactions that in the end form the components of the customer offering. At the beginning of the supply chain are the raw materials and the ideas that start the sequence that leads, it is hoped, to a sale.

This is now being supplanted by a different paradigm; a relational, network approach enabled by new coordination technologies. The manufacturer may even be just one of the nodes in the network and the customer is not a passive consumer but an active part of the plan.

The old model companies are ill-equipped for this digital transformation. Mass-production and mass media organizations are still much more prepared to talk to customers than to hear from them, not realizing that one-way communication was just a fleeting accident of technological development. It is not that customers didn’t have needs and reflections they would have liked to communicate.

We are passing through a technological discontinuity of huge proportions. The rules of competition may even be rewritten for the interactive age. The new interactive economy demands new skills: managing the supply chain is less important than building networks and enabling trust in relations. You could perhaps call the new reversed sequence an on-demand chain. It is the opposite of the make-and-sell model. It is a chain of relationships and links that starts from interaction with the customer and leads up to the creation of the on-demand offering and the enabling technology. As Steve Jobs put it in a different context: “You start with the customer experience and work backwards to the technology. You can’t start with the technology and try to figure out where you’re going to try to sell it.”

Adapting the interactive model is not as easy as identifying customer segments or a niche market because communication can no longer be confined to sales and marketing, or to the ad agency, as in the make-and-sell model. Also to talk about a “segment of one” is misleading because one-way communication changes here to true two-way dialogue. The interactive enterprise must be able to integrate its entire network around the needs of each individual customer’s context. The on-demand chain means continuous on-demand learning and thus continuous change. Your dialogue with an individual customer will change your behavior toward her and change that customer’s behavior toward you. People develop together in interaction.

A learning relationship potentially makes the whole network smarter with every individual interaction creating network effects. Accordingly, the enterprise increases customer retention by making loyalty more convenient than non-loyalty as a result of learning. The goal is to create more value for the customer and to lower her transaction costs. This kind of relationship ensures that it is always in the customer’s self-interest to remain with the people who developed the relationship to begin with. The main benefit for the network partners may not be financial. The most valuable thing is to have access to “community knowledge”, a common movement of thought. It means to be part of a network where learning takes place faster than somewhere else.

In the mass-market economy, the focus was to create a quality product. With increased global competition and with so many quality products around that is not enough any more. To succeed you need high-quality relationships. When customers are identified as individuals in different use contexts, the marketing process is really a joint process of solving problems. You and your customer necessarily then become cooperators. Together you are trying to define and solve the customer’s problem in a way that both satisfies the customer and ensures a profit for you.

The relational approach is the third way to work. It is not about having a fixed job role as an employee or having tasks given to you as a contractor. The most inspiring and energizing future of work may be in defining and solving problems or spotting opportunities in creative interaction with your customers.

The most defining relationship for a worker may not be with an employer but with a customer through one Platform, several Platforms or directly.

The industrial make-and-sell model required expert skills. The decisive thing was your individual knowledge. Today you work more from your network than your skills. The decisive thing is your relations.

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