On becoming an organisation

In his late 50s essay. ‘A Process Conception of Psychotherapy’, noted American psychologist Carl R. Rogers laid out a for-the-time revolutionary theory of how patients progress through the therapeutic process. That essay remains very resonant, often in surprising ways. Re-reading it the other day, I was struck – for example – by how it delivers some really interesting insights into what marketing (and by extension, organisations) should be in our modern, web-fuelled world.

In the essay, Rogers posits two extremes of psychological health. At the unhealthy end, patients are rigid and restricted in their responses to life, testing any new experience against their pre-existing belief and response systems, and only engaging with that experience if it’s in accordance with those systems. They perceive their self to be a static structure, and understand anything that might force change on that structure to be a deep, destructive threat to their very being.

At the other extreme are the healthy – in Rogers’ terms, those who experience the self as a set of ongoing processes, responding flexibly and spontaneously to life as it happens. They welcome new experiences and inputs, and are happy to modify beliefs and behaviours in response to them. As a result, they experience daily life as something consistently positive and stimulating, rather than as something consistently negative and threatening.

Rogers felt that his therapeutic duty to his patients was to help them move away from the former state, and toward the latter. The body of the essay deals with that process, and seeks to understand how it works. Read from the point of view of a marketing professional in 2009, it takes on a very different meaning. It becomes a way of understanding two different definitions of what marketing is, and how it functions within the modern corporation.

Marketing’s role used to be fundamentally expeditionary; heading out into the at best unknown, at worst hostile, worlds of consumer-dom, and returning with treasure – de-contextualised insights, that could safely be fed into the body corporate without overly destabilising or unsettling it. This process was defined as being ‘the consumer’s representative within the business’ – a definition that confirmed the powerlessness of the consumer. Consumers could never themselves be present in the business; they could only ever be represented by a small group of marketing professionals.

Social media has changed that by removing the need for marketing explorers. It allows consumers to talk directly with the businesses that interest them. The point of interface has changed; live conversations between consumers and business representatives can happen on any screen, anywhere within the business, through blogs, Facebook, messageboards, Twitter and so on. The way in which those conversations can take place has also changed. Again thanks to social media, it’s much easier for consumers to form self-organised – rather than marketeer organised – groups, to pool their influence and bring it to bear on a particular business in a particular way.

So, consumers can be directly present within the business, either individually or en masse, in ways that were impossible until very recently – and without any kind of marketing mediation. That change means that marketeers now have a new role to play. No longer explorers, they have to become hosts; rather than going out to find consumers, they have to discover new ways of welcoming them into their companies, and ensuring that those companies can constructively engage with these (one hopes, honoured) guests in as positive and direct a way as possible.

Rogers’ essay helps understand the terms of that change. The most successful businesses will be those that – in Rogers’ terms – move towards health; that are able to quickly and effectively sort and respond to input as it comes in, rather than forcing it through pre-determined channels that exist to ensure that the status quo is maintained regardless of external conditions.

Some brands already understand that. Ben and Jerry’s regularly carry user created ice cream flavours. Innocent began with a question to their consumers, and since then have made their brand as much an experience to be interacted with as a set of drinks to be bought. Amazon couldn’t exist without its user-contributed reviews – and, even as I type, are being hauled over the coals by user groups outraged by #amazonfail; neither the Wispa bar nor HSBC free student overdrafts would exist without a Facebook-based consumer campaigns that brought them back from (respectively) chocolate and banking heaven. Microsoft’s Channel 9 encourages direct engagement with its users. Dell’s Ideastorm website allows Dell users to directly impact on the way that Dell makes computers – and so on.

But that’s only a start. Rogers doesn’t just talk about a change in attitude to the world; he describes a structural change in the self, a complete rethinking of what it is to be a person. The depth of that change is hinted at in the title of the book the essay’s published in; ‘On Becoming a Person’. But I haven’t been using it to talk about people; I’ve been using it to talk about organisations. So, I can’t help wondering what kind of ideal business unit a book called ‘On Becoming an Organisation’ would describe; and I can’t help feeling that we’re seeing the beginning of a process now that will – over the next few years – help us find out.

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