Anticlients are antibodies

Over the past few months I’ve built up quite a nice collection of what I call ‘anticlient‘ tweets: small complaints – or sometimes not so small – about how someone feels about their interactions with some organisation.

Most organisations still seem to prefer to ignore the complainers. But it’s perhaps not a good idea, because anticlients are the immune-system of the enterprise.

They’re the metaphoric antibodies or white blood-cells of the enterprise-as-organism, protecting the integrity of the enterprise as a whole. And they can and will reject – and eject – the organisation from its place in the shared-enterprise if enough of them interpret it as a threat to the enterprise. Hence, for an organisation, monitoring the anticlient activity around itself is not merely a wise idea: it can quite literally be a matter of survival.

So how to do this?

To make sense of this, we need to understand two key points.

First, in the sense that I’m using the terms here, the enterprise is far larger than the organisation. The organisation – bounded by rules, roles and responsibilities – does its business within the scope of a shared-enterprise – an emotive idea, or story, bounded by vision, values and commitments.

Contrary to many current concepts of business, the organisation is not itself ‘the enterprise’, nor does it possess the enterprise. Instead, the organisation operates within the enterprise: and, at any time, the enterprise may and can – to use Charles Handy’s term – revoke the organisation’s ‘social licence to operate’. Despite its own image of itself, the organisation is unlikely to be ‘the centre’ of the shared-enterprise: in reality, its existence is very much dependent on its relationships with and within the enterprise – and if that ‘licence to operate’ is revoked, the organisation will probably die.

And the way in which that ‘licence to operate’ is challenged, and possibly revoked, is very similar to an organism’s immune-response: some entity within that organism (or, here, the shared-enterprise) is somehow identified as a threat, will become surrounded by the organism’s ‘guard-cells’ to shield the rest of the organism from its influence, and then either absorbed or pushed out. For an shared-enterprise, anticlients are its antibodies – its immune-system to protect itself from ‘rogue’ organisations.

For an organisation, anticlient-activity is the first warning-bell of an immune-response by the enterprise against it. Just as in a living body, there’ll always be some immune-system activity anyway: but alarm-bells should definitely go off as soon as that activity rises much beyond a background level. For its own survival, the organisation needs to monitor anticlient-activity in the enterprise.

The scope we need to monitor here is quite a lot larger than most people seem to expect. For a start, we need to monitor within the organisation: one of the things that can definitely kill the organisation is when its own employees become anticlients… Beyond that, we typically need to think of the ‘the enterprise’ stretching out at least three steps beyond the organisation: its immediate supply-chain or value-web, its market-context, and the broader community beyond the market. Or, in visual form:

Anticlients are people who are in the same enterprise, but disagree with how your organisation acts within that enterprise. There are two distinct types of anticlients for whom we need to watch: inherent-anticlients and betrayal-anticlients.

— Inherent-anticlients are the anticlients you’ll get automatically if your organisation addresses only one side of a story that includes inherent wicked-problems. For example, if you’re providing family-planning advice, you’ll automatically have opposition from ‘right to live’ activists and/or ‘right to choose’ activists, as anticlients to your organisation. Much the same applies if you’re doing oil-exploration in the Amazon, or doing PR for a political party: by the very nature of that kind of wicked-problem, there’s no way that you’re not going to have someone who vehemently disagrees with you. 🙁

[At first glance, our competitors might also seem to be like anticlients for us, but the relationship is significantly different: the opposition is peer-to-peer, not between organisation and its ‘containing’ broader-enterprise.]

Inherent-anticlients tend to reside out in the outer reaches of the shared-enterprise, beyond the market-space in which your organisation operates. (This should be no surprise, because in many cases they’ll reject the validity even of that market in itself, let alone any one organisation that operates within it.) They’re also relatively easy to identify and to monitor, because in effect ‘they come with the territory’ – their opposition is a direct outcome of a wicked-problem embedded in the core of the enterprise itself.

This does, however, also mean that there’s no way to eliminate their opposition as such, because it’s an outcome of the way the broader-enterprise defines itself – which is far beyond our own control.

The best way to mitigate inherent-anticlient risks is:

  • acknowledge that the clash exists, and is inherent in the shared-enterprise itself
  • respect the opposition, and the validity of that opposition
  • openly reach out to work with the anticlients, rather than fight against them or attempt to silence or ignore them

A good example of how this can be made to work for all parties is Walmart‘s now-active engagement in sustainability throughout its value-web.

— Betrayal-anticlients are the anticlients that your organisation creates through its actions and inactions. The ‘betrayal’ in this context is a perceived betrayal by the organisation of the values or promise of the shared-enterprise, leading to a steep loss of trust in the organisation itself – and thence to active opposition against the organisation.

Sometimes these are non-clients who don’t actually engage in transactions with the organisation, but react against what they as ‘uninvolved third-parties’ perceive as unfairness against others. More often, though, they are – or were – customers of the organisation who feel personally let down or betrayed by the organisation. In that sense, betrayal-anticlients tend to reside more in the market-space of the enterprise, rather than in the outer reaches of the shared-enterprise.

Unlike the inherent-anticlients, opposition from betrayal-anticlients often seems ‘unpredictable’ – especially if the organisation is largely unaware of its impacts on others, or enacts behaviours that can seem cavalier or disrespectful about others. The opposition can also vary wildly in scope and scale, again seemingly ‘without warning’. Yet in practice these ‘immune-system response’ interactions are largely predictable: they arise directly from poor service-design and/or service-execution. The apparent unpredictability can also be reduced by monitoring social-media and suchlike for complaints about the organisation, such as tweets that mention the organisation together with a ‘#fail‘ hashtag – and a fast and respectful response is often crucial for reducing the risk that such social-media complaints could ‘go viral’.

The best way to mitigate betrayal-anticlient risks is to do a thorough review of all services and service-relationships, looking for and then designing-out any built-in power-dysfunctions in those services. Specifically, what we look for are two fundamental misunderstandings about power:

  • power-over: any attempt to prop Self up by putting Other down (or the less-common ‘lose/win’ form: any attempt to prop Other up by putting Self down)
  • power-under: any attempt to offload responsibility onto the Other without their engagement and consent (or the less-common ‘lose/win’ form: attempt to take on responsibility from the Other without engagement or consent)

Unfortunately, both power-over and, even more, power-under are very common in organisations’ internal and external service-relationships, in all forms and at all levels, from corporate policy right the way down to code-level interactions between IT-systems. Judging from the streams of ‘#fail‘ tweets and suchlike, both power-under and power-over are rampant in virtually all forms of so-called ‘customer-service’; some business-models in effect depend on power-under or even power-over. This is definitely not wise, since in the days of widely-shared social-media and other forms of many-to-many or many-to-one communication, just one seriously-disgruntled betrayal-anticlient really can have the power to bring down an entire corporation…

In terms of actions for enterprise-architects, service-designers and others, perhaps the most crucial of all is a shift in mindset, from ignoring or rejecting anticlient-complaints, to actively seeking them out and engaging with them. Remember that each of them is a kind of immune-response by the enterprise, against our organisation: and it is the remit of the shared-enterprise, not a unilateral assertion by the organisation, that determines the continuing of our organisation’s ‘social-licence to operate’. Remember too that in this kind of context, feelings are facts: simple notions of ‘reason’ and suchlike will rarely apply – at least, not in the sense that we might use with an IT-system, for example.

And yes, it is tricky. On one side, every anticlient-response represents a potential threat to that licence-to-operate; but it’s likely that we, or our executives or others, won’t want to hear about any complaints, will want to pretend that everything will run smoothly just how we want, without needing to face any real-world complexities or complications at all. Yet on the other side, every anticlient-response provides us with information about how we could or should improve the organisation and its services, in order to better protect and expand that licence-to-operate; and as in that Walmart example, there’s a lot that we can gain from it too, if we turn round and actively engage with our anticlients.

That’s the choice here. Which way you take it, of course, is up to you! 🙂

Comments, anyone?

1 Comment on “Anticlients are antibodies

  1. Tom
    As ever a succinct and useful analogy (anticlients are its antibodies etc) to help the unconverted understand.

    What do you think is likely to prove the most effective way of vaccinating organisations (and increasing the breadth and depth of their antibody response) to rogue organisations as well as events/epidemics?

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