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Mass Personalization

August 8, 2009

Recently, it seems, the Starbucks coffee empire has begun experimenting with a different approach to satisfying the cravings of the caffeine-addicted masses, many of whom they fear have already or are inclined soon to turn away from what they consider the impersonal mass-market corporate culture of globalization.  Already a leader in mass customization, Starbucks’ new concept store in Seattle is an effort to return the coffee consuming experience to a more human scale by restoring the sense of intimacy and idiosyncrasy of coffee houses of days not so long gone.

Over the years, I have seen many concepts that originate in the private sector migrate in one form or another across to the public sector.  The reverse has occasionally occurred too, but far less often and often much less successfully.

Individualizing customer experiences while mass producing a product or service to a single and quite often simple standard has a certain appeal as a means of promoting efficiency while improving customer satisfaction.  Yet governments have been slow to recognize and even slower to adapt their services to public demands to manage interactions with individuals or groups according to their specific needs.  Something about interacting with people as customers or market segments rather than citizens rubs our sense of equity the wrong way even if it might be more efficient or even more effective.

So, what then does the move from mass customization toward a more intimate and personal sort of interaction mean for government?  Well, it could mean more emphasis on co-production and social capital as critical paths to creating public value for starters.

The coffee house experience is not so much about the coffee as it is about culture.  Coffee is simply a device for bringing people together.  Once congregated, people spontaneously interact in ways that fill human needs and express human desires in a far more primitive yet meaningful way than caffeine can.

This sort of interaction, which revolves around art, music, poetry, conversation, and performance, may occur over coffee but not because of it.  As such, what makes the new/old coffee houses special and indeed different from the current Starbucks delivery model is not only the ability to carry on a conversation or commune with other people but the encouragement to do so.

A public space, real or virtual, where people can gather, share, debate, and create not only allows but indeed encourages a sense of community.  In the commons, people can both find and make meaning for themselves.  And in doing so, they move beyond  satisfying their their immediate need for alertness through coffee to finding common ground and forging bonds of common purpose with others often for the benefit of us all.

P.S.: See this NPR Weekend Edition Saturday story on an Indian cafe in the Punjabi capitol city of Chandigarh for a parallel take on the Starbucks example.

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