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Mastering the Grey Space

Updated: Jul 11, 2023

Commercial relationship management in the digital age demands mastery of the grey space that sits between providers and customers. Today’s technology platforms are not up to the job and must change if they are to helping organisations survive and thrive.

One of the primary effects of the astonishing impact of the Internet, world-wide-web (www) and the cloud (‘Cloud’) on commercial organisations has been the rewiring of distribution. More profound than the implications for the mechanics, processes and economics of distribution is the effect on the nature of trading relationships. When feedback between customers and providers is instantaneous, the communications experience changes, becoming a far more responsive and reflexive interaction. The feedback gained from interactions with a customer becomes a source of product development information at least as important as the work undertaken by inhouse innovation teams. For example, the cosmetics company REFY has grown rapidly since its launch in 2018, marketed almost exclusively on Instagram. As reported in Forbes magazine, the founders list the following advice for anyone wanting to bring a new product to market.

“Due to the continual contact with potential customers, [REFY] formed relationships with them and understood how they could help their client and what their customer needed. This customer experience sets REFY apart from the competition.”

A deeper examination of underlying causes of the emergence of a relational paradigm tells a deeper story than one starting with the genesis of the Internet, or the www and Cloud built upon it. In the early part of the 20th century significant shifts in both the sciences and the arts challenged our understanding of the way we make sense of and relate to the world. The previously mechanical and objective framework was being tested by a multi-faceted and subjective view of the universe.

In quantum physics, the work of Niels Bohr, Werner Heisenberg, Erwin Schrödinger et al in the 1920s suggested a far more complex and relational universe. Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle and Schrodinger’s famous thought experiment involving a cat and a box point to a significantly weirder, less mechanical universe than previously imagined. The ideas put forward then are still being fiercely debated 100 years later.

“At the forefront of contemporary science, the universe is no longer seen as some kind of machine composed of elementary building blocks. We have discovered that the material world is ultimately a network of inseparable patterns of relationships.” Fritjof Capra, 2021.

In his 1923 book ‘Ich und Du’ (I and you/Thou) Austrian/Israeli Philosopher Martin Buber proposes two ways in which existence can be viewed — the ‘I/it’ and the ‘I/thou’. In the former, the attitude of the ‘I’ towards the ‘it’ is that of clear separation between subject and object. In the latter the attitude of the ‘I’ is that it is in a less discrete and separated relationship with the ‘Thou’. Buber explains that an I/Thou interaction requires us to turn up as our full human selves, to treat the other in the same way and not objectify them. The resulting interaction is described as the ‘encounter’ and he specifically names the space that sits between the I and Thou as ‘in between’. By specifically naming the relational space, Buber gives both parties joint responsibility for the quality and health of the relationship.

“Inscrutably involved, we live in the currents of universal reciprocity.” — Martin Buber

Interviewed by the BBC in 1999, David Bowie, an English singer-songwriter commented on changes in the arts because of a breakdown in world view. A framework of known truths and known lies was, Bowie explains, being replaced by one in which there are multiple perspectives and numerous answers to every question.

“[The breakdown] is happening in every art form. It is happening in visual art. The breakthroughs of the early part of the [20th] century with people like Duchamp, who were so prescient in what they were doing and putting down. The idea that the piece of work is not finished until the audience come to it and add their own interpretation and what the piece of art is about is the grey space in the middle.”

Bowie then gives the following answer when the interviewer proposes a view that the Internet is merely a different distribution method.

“I am talking about the actual context and the state of content is going to be so different to anything that we can really envisage. Where the interplay between the user and the provider will be so ‘in sympatico’ that it is going to crush our ideas of what mediums are all about. That grey space in the middle is what the 21st Century is going to be about.”

The implications for the way organisations manage 3rd party relationships in the digital economy are significant. Today, organisational structure often reflects a mechanical and systematic paradigm. Structure, function, interfaces, processes and systems are the primary lens through which businesses are organised and supply-chain or value-chain are the most common references used when thinking about how an organisation relates to neighbouring entities. Yet business is still a uniquely human process based on trust built over months and years. Agreements are formed when two or people look each other in the eye and say ‘yes, I will do business with you’.

Businesses would operate more successfully and deliver greater value to customers if they reframed themselves as being in a co-creative relationship with them rather than the progenitors of offerings which they fire at their target market. That Encounter-Centred Marketing techniques be used to rethink the way teams approach relationships with all other parties in the eco-system. Perhaps identifying the grey space that sits in the ‘in between’ as a corporate asset in its own right and worthy of analytic study.

What then is the implication for corporate technology? Enterprise systems must go through the same rewiring as consumer facing systems have in the last 15 years. Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn all hold relationships as their primary organising thoughts. Enterprise systems, meanwhile, have been deployed on ideas of business process, asset (e.g. documents or customer records) or business functional area (e.g. sales, marketing, distribution or finance). The resulting information landscape is highly fragmented, leaving teams operating in silos. Unable to join the dots across the organisation, maintaining visibility of how trading relationships are evolving over time is an impossible task. Without oversight and insight into the grey space that sits in between, organisations risk continuing in a mechanical paradigm unlikely to stand the test of time.

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