Saturday, 22 November 2014

Thinking Aloud: The Need of a Unified Environment in Engagement Management

For ages, enterprises have been operating in the landscape of diverse software solutions. These diverse (or more correctly - distinct) solutions are seen in every other mid to large scale enterprise.Most of them are ERPs, where the very purpose was to bring about centralization of data & more importantly consistency of purpose in the enterprise.However, as the time passed by, firms’ expectations from the software changed. Very few ERP implementations have retained their homogeneousness over time. There are a large number of transaction management applications, CRM applications& a recent crop of mobile apps that enterprises had to inevitably deploy. And guess what, most of these softwares are supposed to perform the task of traditional core business operations for a company. Exponential growth of Loyalty & EM (Engagement Management) genres has resulted in addition of yet another variable to the equation. Till what extent can our firms absorb different software to satisfy newer functional needs?

EM (Engagement Management): 
Multiple Platforms & Consistent Experience  -  Fallacy?

Loyalty& Engagement Management are thought to be the recent genres (at least from software perspective).Thus, as the genres evolve,companies are preferring separate solutions on ad-hoc basis. Such individual solutions are then ‘integrated’ over time. Naturally, this gives rise to the less-than-ideal scenario of highly heterogeneous solution to the overarching problem.

Granted, these diverse solutions solve different problems on the EM (Engagement Management) canvas & that too quite convincingly. Just to get an idea, some core problems in EM space & different tools needed to solve them are mentioned ahead --  1. Tracking of customer transactions/interactions via various tracking mechanisms depending on channels (but then again, in this case alone, several types of solutions are possible depending upon the chosen method to track customer activities).  2. Analyzing the buying behavior,with the help of various data mining & analytics engines.  3. Gamification of the target process (progressive incentivization softwares or separate gamification engines are needed for this).   4. Designing & operating loyalty programs/schemes needs its own loyalty software (with point conversion engines & participant account management).   5. Managingcustomer engagement/communication activities requiring special software which would integrate the communication getaways to facilitate bidirectional interactions as well as perform measurement of communication activities.

Now, if we look at the 5 areas mentioned in the previous paragraph, each of them is so big that a separate platform could be required for it.And market is ready with a lot of such platforms.  However, adopting separate platforms for each EM function increases the probability of messing up your information warehouse. This messy information warehouse proves to be of little use when you want to pull out insights. Data doesn’t match up, information is in a very scattered form & seeing all this, stakeholders tend to lose patience & ad-hoc programmes are designed just for gathering the relevant information needed at that point. Then, to save the day, a large flurry of integrations & information tunnels are built, which require a lot of architectural & developmental changes.

What causes this colossal breakdown of information pyramid? Well, on the lowest level there are data mismatches, which many times cause digital identity crisis(think of any old govt. program to realize what I’m talking about). Then there are data format mismatches. A very simplified example of format mismatch would be presence of alphanumeric characters in one platform & the other platform lacking support for it. From a high-level perspective, this tends to happen because individual platforms gather data for different purposes (the distinct business functionthey were bought to do). And this high-level mismatch more than often percolates down to ground level. One of the initial premises for Engagement Management is to give a consistent brand experience to the members. Hence adopting such approach of heterogeneous solutions becomes a strategic fallacy.

Now, let us make a case for a unified platform. What could a unified environment offer? First of all, it would bring about a reduction in integration & development costs for sure. For software architects, so much of time goes into deciding what data to pull from where & how to format the data. With a homogeneous platform, this burden would surely be reduced. Secondly, a unified environment would offer much easier impact analysis when making changes. The impacts of proposed changes have to be analyzed in only single platform. Not in tens of them. Then, since developers are more likely to get comfortable with the idiosyncrasies & structure of one platform, the (unified) platform would be easier to maintain. Then, filtered data which is much more accurate would be gathered. This is because data would be gathered for the exact intended purpose.  No force-fitting of data from one platform on the other.  Since the environment is unified, it would be easier to train resources. This would result in reduction of computational & operational redundancies. Billing & cost tracking & appropriation would be much more simplified. Lastly & vitally, there would be a consistency in brand messaging & experience throughout the engagement lifecycle.

Wait, there is a risk, you say? Too much power given to one vendor? Well anyways you are likely to use one vendor per major function. If that co. messes up, that function of yours is gone anyway. And who knows what impact it may have on the other functions because of your integrations & data dependencies?We rest our argument for a unified environment. But we’re not a bunch of impractical idealists. Please go through our acknowledgement below.

Acknowledgement: We acknowledge that a cent percent unified environment to address all EM needs of a brand/company is probably asking for too much. One would still have to ride on that bumpy road of APIs, integrations & data migrations (oh, those ETL programs!). However choosing a platform which provides a high degree of uniformity (wherein a platform would cover as much of the engagement canvas as possible), would go long way in evening out of most bumps, making the ride far smoother.
Hey, as the title says, this is just one team’s take on the topic. Do share your thoughts for mutual enlightenment.   

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