Many different fields of study — such as psychology, human-computer interaction, and ecology — have employed the concept of “affordances.” The term refers to the different possible actions that someone can take with an object in a particular environment. For example, someone can interact with a beach ball by batting it in the air, letting it float in water, sitting on it, or popping it. The importance of affordances is the shift in focus from the characteristics of the object to what one can do with an object in a particular situation.
The concept of affordances can be particularly useful when applied to digital technologies in organizations. It overcomes many of the key mistakes companies make when trying to update their organizations to compete in an increasingly digital environment.
Perhaps the most fundamental implication introduced by the concept of affordances is the shift from the characteristics of the technology itself to what your company can actually do with it. Digital technologies only enable possible actions for people and organizations to engage in; they do not make those actions happen on their own. Simply owning or implementing digital technologies is not enough to derive business value from it.
This insight may sound obvious, but it is stunning how often managers forget this simple fact in practice. They either believe that the mere adoption of the latest technology will improve their business prospects, or they focus all of their efforts on implementation without applying the time or resources to make the types of organizational changes needed to benefit from the possibilities the technologies offer. For example, one company adopted Twitter in order to be more responsive to customers, but it kept existing processes in place — processes that required multiple approvals before publicly responding on behalf of the company. This negated the benefit of Twitter because it limited the way the technology could be used to respond quickly to customers. This example may be egregious, but it is common for companies to adopt digital technologies without considering how work needs to change to take advantage of the benefits they enable.
Just as a beach ball can be used in a number of different ways, so can digital technologies enable a number of different possible actions within organizations. One of Twitter’s greatest strengths (and a reason many people and companies find it confusing) is the multiple possible actions it can enable. Some companies — many of the major media outlets, for example — use Twitter as a means of broadening the reach of their content. Others, such as Delta, JetBlue, and KLM, use Twitter as an effective customer service tool, enabling them to support customers in a very fluid service environment. Still others use Twitter as a business intelligence tool.