A recent thread of conversation across a couple of 2.0 blogs has been the subject of whether Web 2.0 is suited not only for implementation inside a corporate firewall, but by companies with a view to improving their relations with their customers.
The debate was started by Microsoft Web architect Michael Platt, who used one of Dion Hinchcliffe's many posts about internal corporate uses of 2.0ish memes and labelled it as knowledge management by another name, saying that the real innovation would come from outside the cubicle in "customer lifecycle management":
Typically CLM is too expensive and long drawn out to be able to do effectively so organizations have tried to do a cheap version which fails. With the use of Web 2.0 social and community techniques however now CLM can be done effectively and efficiently. This is where Web 2.0 will impact organizations the most.
Dion shot back in the comments saying Michael was "throwing the baby out with the bathwater", but after an answering salvo by Michael it seems Dion took Platt's words to heart, since he favourably mentioned the CLM post in his next ZDNet entry.
Personally, I think companies are going to have to deal with the inside first before they can seriously look at adopting 2.0-style technologies and practices with their customers. You can't truly project openness and responsiveness to customers if your internal systems don't talk to each other and you can't publish instantly from legacy data sources to Web sites from behind the firewall. It just doesn't work that way. If you slap a wiki on a brochureware site then it's not going to go anywhere.
So how can Web 2.0 ideas be applied to CRM, or CLM, or whatever acronym you're using with the word "customer" in it? Let's assume everything inside your enterprise has been SOAed and SaaSed better than anything has been SOAed or SaaSed before. In this mythically perfect world, your corporate Web site would graduate past brochureware, past the top-down publishing model, to a set of modular data chunks defined as a collection of RSS/Atom feeds, clumped into OPML lists.
For example, instead of telling customers all about your you-beaut new blue widget in a carefully worded press release, you publish the schematics and technical specs of the new product as part of your publicly available New Widget RSS feed, to which a small number of influential early adopter customers would be subscribed. This feed would include a facility to leave comments, which would have a separate RSS feed.
The feed would also be linked to from a company blog ... not THE company blog with all the finely honed corp-speak that entails, but a blog authored by one of the engineers who actually worked on the blue widget, and whose pride in the product shines through in her prose. This blog's feed, and comment feed, are part of wider corporate OPML lists that customers can browse through for different perspectives on the company's doings.
This array of self-perpetuating feeds would then enable conversations between your customers, most of which would take place without your company's involvement. Sure, you'd have a wiki or forums or whatever on your own site which might be moderated to ensure the usual language and behavioural norms are respected for people who prefer that sort of thing, but apart from that you should get out of the way and let the users take emotional ownership of the company's products.
In this way, your company's site is not seen as the singular place to get information about your company or to talk about your company, it is merely one source among a large ecology which enable customers to create their own experiences.
This scenario can only happen if your customers gain instant, unfiltered access to internal company data so that they feel they are part of the process of your company's growth. If even your own employees can't see that data, then you're not going to get very far.