The marketing concept of channels originally referred to different media types. In this view of the world, an IT leader might have a slightly different marketing strategy for the direct mail channel vs. the print channel, and newer technologies such as the web, social, and mobile were initially lumped into marketing efforts as additional channels.
More recently, the concept of omnichannel marketing has become prevalent, and its concepts apply to everything from internal IT applications to HR portals and new mobile applications. Here's a closer look at this buzzword.
Context and user-driven design
Historically, the design portion of most projects focused on features and functions; this was particularly true of IT, where detailed requirements gathering sessions have long been the norm. These sessions generally resulted in a laundry list of features and functions, some of which would ultimately get implemented, while others would be deemed too complex or risky, often after the project was underway.
This contrasts with the omnichannel mindset, which seeks to deliver a series of experiences that are relevant to a particular context. For example, a context might be a QA inspector working on the production floor, and the relevant experience is performing a quality inspection. Rather than rattling off features and functions that are needed to support this role, omnichannel thinking considers what tasks the user is trying to accomplish, and how that user interacts with their tools and environment to perform those tasks. We'd rapidly conclude that this user would benefit from a mobile device and an extremely streamlined user experience to minimize distraction on a fast-moving assembly line, and then start defining the capabilities that enable this experience.
Leverage the channel's capabilities
A common misconception about omnichannel is that it means particular content or services should be available in some capacity on any device. Rather than attempting to cram desktop-style applications into tiny mobile screens through responsive design, omnichannel thinking provides a different experience based on the channel.
Our QA inspector might be well-served by using a mobile device's camera when performing line inspections, and later augmenting those pictures with detailed notes on a desktop computer when he or she identifies a problem that should be sent to engineering staff. While both activities are part of the same task, they are not duplicated on the different devices; rather, each device performs an element of the task that it's best equipped to handle.
Omnichannel further extends the boundaries and integrations between applications and services. Rather than thinking about corporate departments or roles, a focus on the experience, context, and channel capabilities crosses these boundaries.
Our QA inspector may be the final line of defense preventing a systemic defect from causing a product recall, therefore integrating him or her into a larger product experience and context. In this context, the information he or she captures might send data to engineering or to sales if inspection results adversely impact pending orders.
This thinking breaks traditional organizational and systemic silos, and can initially be frightening since integration is always a costly element of building IT systems; omnichannel provides assistance on this front as well. On the technical side, omnichannel encourages a shift toward an API-driven architecture, where data and functionality are readily shared between applications. That may be a longer-term goal, but don't let the perfect become the enemy of the "good enough." A simple notification highlighting a quality problem may produce the behaviors you want today, while you work on a better solution for tomorrow. The multi-million-dollar IT integration efforts that are encouraged by thinking in terms of features and functions may not be needed to produce the desired user experience.
Diet and exercise
Much like the advice that diet and exercise are the keys to losing weight, a focus on the user and context, channel capabilities, and intelligent integration are conceptually easy to grasp, yet difficult to implement in practice. However, simply reorienting your thinking toward the user and their context will likely simplify your technology deployments and, while requiring more up-front investment in understanding your users, will result in streamlined applications and IT processes later.
Furthermore, most of your marketing peers are likely transitioning to an omnichannel mindset. As marketing controls an increasing share of IT spend, speaking the same language certainly doesn't hurt.
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Note: TechRepublic and ZDNet are CBS Interactive properties.
Patrick Gray works for a global Fortune 500 consulting and IT services company and is the author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology as well as the companion e-book The Breakthrough CIO's Companion. He has spent over a decade providing strategy consulting services to Fortune 500 and 1000 companies. Patrick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, and you can follow his blog at www.itbswatch.com. All opinions are his and may not represent those of his employer.