After the Google Wave announcement in May I went in to work all excited to share the awesomeness with my colleagues — one of whom caught me off-guard by asking,

“Ok, so what good is that?

My first thought was, “Hmmm, obviously I didn’t stress how awesome it’s going to be.” Then I realized maybe we’re on different wavelengths. So I started trying to think of practical examples: how could we use Wave to make the typical workplace more efficient (if not more creative)?

As I did that I became even more of a believer than before.

Without giving out to many details about my old day job, I interacted with people calling a national customer service line for a very high profile corporation. I don’t imagine it’s typical for a call centre. The variety of calls never ceased to surprise me. The tough part was there was no way anyone could ever know all the answers, we could never be totally prepared.

Wave (I expect) will be a godsend for that kind of work — I mean, not necessarily a godsend for the way it’s done now, but it will certainly present unprecedented opportunities to improve the way information moves in and out of organizations — an opportunity to reinvent…

What Wave can do for customer service (and is there anybody who thinks customer service, the way it’s done now, is good for anybody?) is analogous to what Jeff Jarvis wrote about what it could do for news:

Wave takes this to the next level. It combines the notions of a process as people add and subtract and update; it has the benefit of a wiki – a snapshot of current knowledge; it can be live; it can feed a blog page with the latest; it can feed Twitter with updates; it is itself the collaborative tool that lets participants question each other.

Wave isn’t just the email we’d invent if email were invented today, as was Google’s goal. Wave is what news can be if we invent it today, as we must.

If we could invent customer service tomorrow, what would it be?

A lot of people think the answer is Zappos (with their enlightened hiring practices, all their blogs, and of course, their Twitter-star CEO Tony Hsieh).

Having said that, yes, Zappos is a leading light — and any high-level conversation about customer service must be informed by mutual familiarity with what they’re doing (Hsieh’s presentation at the Web 2.0 Summit is a must-see) — but their way isn’t exactly right for every organization.

For example, Hsieh’s story about the visitor who found out about his wife’s exorbitant shoe purchases (over $60,000), not from his wife, but from a rep who pulled up her account, might horrify managers of a financial services call centre.

In another kind of business, Zappos’s convivial and open culture could result in catastrophe. Not even counting privacy concerns and other legal matters, a lot of companies (perhaps most) are in industries where it would be competitively suicidal to be so deferent with customers… at least as things are now.

It isn’t just that conviviality and openness and cooperation are intrinsically bad. If anything, there’s a long-term trend that rewards increased openness. The problem is one of timing — or more accurately, these aren’t changes that can be implemented Monday morning, there’s a process of evolution playing out, and organizations have to gradually adapt (not too fast, not too slow either) to fit the circumstances.

The notion of where things are going can be made more clear by picking up the June edition of the Harvard Business Review, featuring an article by Jim O’Toole and Warren Bennis titled “What’s Needed Next: A Culture of Candor“:

We won’t be able to rebuild trust in institutions until leaders learn how to communicate honestly—and create organizations where that’s the norm.

The pair have a new book out (the third co-author is the influential psychologist Daniel Goleman) about transparency (here’s the promo video, via, with a bit of corniness at the start).

There was also a web exclusive co-authored by Henry Chesbrough on how to “Use Open Innovation to Cope with a Downturn.” I’ve referred to Chesbrough a few times before. His work focuses on innovating more effectively by being open:

In this world, companies must become nimble at “open innovation”—at accessing and exploiting outside knowledge while liberating their own internal expertise for others’ use. Not only can they benefit from ideas they harvest from outside, they can profit from sharing their ideas with others, even competitors.

Here again Zappos is an exemplar with their Insights service for distributing expertise to anyone willing to pay the monthly fee.

I don’t think you can fight openness or transparency. Just ask the folks at St. Joseph’s Hospital how tough it can be to contain and control information these days.

So why not go with the flow?

With Wave  and Wave-like tools emerging it seems inevitable that very soon, first-level customer service reps will be able to port customer inquiries into internal real-time forums and wikis — putting it out there anyone in the organization who might know the answer to respond.

Then once it has been answered, it’ll continue to reside in that context — searchable by anyone else in the future, thus saving the time and energy of continuously forwarding questions up the org chart.

Research-driven companies like 3M and Cisco already have platforms in place for sharing knowledge across organizational boundaries. I think the possibilities of this kind of openness from a customer service perspective have been under-considered.

But then we have to wonder, as it becomes so easy for information to move around internally, who’s going to be the gatekeeper at the outer walls? Will there be any outer walls at all? Or is “wall” the wrong metaphor?

Who knows… All I know for sure is I can’t wait to find out!