Jun 27

Virtual customer environments – the key to co-creation?

I’ve just been reading in the MIT Sloan management review (here is a summary article) about the rise of Virtual Customer Environments (VCEs) as a means of forging closer links with customers in the areas of innovation and value creation. Microsoft, Cisco, Nokia, Volvo and Nike are mentioned as being pioneers in this area. A VCE can be as simple as an on-line discussion forum or a sophisticated product prototyping centre. By interacting with customers, Nokia have been able to tap into innovative design concepts. AB Volvo were able to accelerate product development by incorporating customers in virtual product concept labs. At present, VCEs are being used in five different (but in my view fairly close) roles in customer value co-creation: product conceptualizer, product designer, product tester, product support and product marketer. Here’s a little more on each of these:

Product conceptualizer:

This is where companies encourage customers to interact among themselves to generate and develop product improvement ideas. An example of this is Ducati Motor Holding SpA, the Italian motorcycle company with their Tech Cafe, where customers share design ideas (even including detailed engineering drawings) to customise and improve their bikes.

Product Design

Customers can design their idel product using virtual prototyping tools in the VCE. For example BMWs Customer Innovation Lab (see related article in European Business Forum) gives customers the tools to create their own designs. PSA also do something similar.

Product Tester

Companies are starting to harness virtual product technologies to engage their customers in testing concepts. Volvo and Audi have both implemented this capability

Product Support Specialist

Basically getting your expert users to support other users. Not quite so relevant to my innovation theme, so I’ll move through this one quickly. Perhaps not surprisingly, Microsoft and Cisco seem to be the main companies pushing this.

Product Marketer

Some companies have used customer expertise in product marketing┬áactivities carried out on VCEs. Both Korea’s Samsung and Japan’s Suzuki have experimented with virtual product launch centres, employing interactive product simulations and in the process engaging customers in product marketing.

All in all, these technologies, seem to offer innovative companies many opportunities in future: better engagement of customers,┬áreduced time to market, potential for viral marketing and ability to derive input from lead users (see my previous post on this subject).┬áMy only concern with these technologies is that used blindly, they could become a tool for averaging and “group think”. There still needs to be room in tomorrow’s innovation processes for the sort of visionary connections and insights which can create true breakthrough product.┬á┬á


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