Using Online Communities to Improve Field Enablement

Dion Hinchcliffe | March 23, 2016

As online communities are integrated into the fabric of today’s workplace, becoming central even to core business operations in many organizations, one of the more interesting and high value scenarios to support is field enablement. With the emergence of community features in many popular platforms used by field staff, notably Salesforce’s CRM platform combined with Community Cloud as well as SAP CRM with SAP Jam, the average organization now has the tools and the ability to enable powerful new peer production scenarios that can improve the performance of their field force, often dramatically.

While the benefits of online community for the workforce are now well-known, the challenge has been to package the capabilities up in a way that can readily support some of the busiest, most demanding, and highest value workers in the organizations, those out in the field on sales and service teams.

To successfully enable these workers, a successful solution must address their unique requirements out in the field. These include aspects related to their remote location, their reliance on newer mobile devices for their IT needs, and most importantly, their most critical daily workflows along with the obstacles that routinely obstruct the free flow of these activities, the barriers to which are typically related to gaining access to the right knowledge or content at the right time. This latter issue, which boils down to knowledge management that works, often dominates field scenarios and is perhaps the core strength of communities and enterprise social networks.

Using Online Community to Re-Imagine Field Sales and Service Enablement

The challenge: How best to enable high value field scenarios?

Field enablement therefore requires a clear understanding of which use cases can be improved with community along with a user experience that is designed to reduce the friction between key field force activities and the ability to easily accomplish them. The categories of field enablement that communities are uniquely able to bring to the table are typically represented by a) more easily capturing, then contextually surfacing expertise and content from sales/service colleagues, b) dynamic peer support as urgent situations arise in the field, c) and improved onboarding and other forms of shared learning, as key examples, though other valuable scenarios exist.

At 7Summits, we’ve had years of experience with field enablement using online community across healthcare, financial services, and high tech. Along the way, we discovered that workforce journey mapping in particular is the most repeatable and successful way to ensure that the high leverage of online communities is well-situated across field workforce job types and their associated core activities. Journey mapping has also proven to be a potent tool to re-imagine and redesign the workforce experience in the field, providing definitions and visualizations of the field experience that can be used — with user labs and pilots to validate — to reason about, experiment with, and prove out much better ways of working.

Another key capability for field enablement is the ability to integrate with the timely, useful data from other enterprise systems, and make it available for discussion and collaboration in a community context. For example, field enablement is usually very document-centric, and therefore having capable, effective integration with top document management platforms like SharePoint is key, though only a beginning. There’s also usually a lot of value to be had in contextual integration with case management, product catalog, pricing and quoting, appointment booking, promotions/campaign management, and so on. Contextual in this case means ensuring that notifications, content recommendations, search, and other discovery mechanisms brings easy — and often proactive — access to relevant information to support key field scenarios.

Delivering a world-class field enablement experience: Community + mobile

The long-standing delivery model for digital tools to support the field has been the portal, or intranet, with custom features designed to specifically realize field enablement. One major change to this model, in addition to seamlessly incorporating online community to unleash collective field knowledge and capability, has been the advent of smartphones, tablets, and other mobile form factors. Enterprises have tried to address mobile functionality with responsive user experiences but the best field experience comes from native applications, which have full access to the rich capabilities of today’s devices and offer the best user experience.

The issue today is that delivering this is challenging for a variety of skill and infrastructure reasons in most organizations, and so it can be a competitive differentiator where organizations are prepared to invest. A better enabled field workforce can deliver high and larger sales, improved field service, greater customer satisfaction, and therefore more repeat business. A high quality mobile field experience is currently still rare and thus a major differentiator, particularly when combined with community.

Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t underscore that online communities are a unique business capability that hasn’t really existed before. They can create much higher levels of performance and business value, both top line and bottom line, but they require new types of support and facilitation. Field enablement is no different in this regard, and effective community management is vital to ensure the effective realization of field enablement solutions to ensure peer support scenarios are actively managed for the best results, yet is typically only represents a minor increase in operational costs.

Business thinkers have long come to the conclusion that good collaboration makes the workforce operate much more effectively, and digital collaboration platforms like community can improve it at scale. Field enablement programs in most organizations have yet to fully tap into modern technological and process improvements in what is possible, which have matured considerably in recent years. We believe the time is right for most organizations to update their technology portfolio with newer, high performance community-powered sales and service functions.

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