VRM: I’ll show you mine if you’ll show me yours

While I’ve mentioned the wonkish topic before on this blog, I’ve held off (for years) writing about Vendor Relationship Management (VRM). When I say wonkish, I mean it is still in a phase that is conceptual and academic, more than commercial and mainstream.

However, the idea represented by the term “VRM” has been around a long time and is now moving into real products and services. Moreover, it’s a good time to bring it up because the idea that “consumers” (an un-VRMish term) need to have the ability to access data collected about them, and use such data as currency in the marketplace, was demonstrated dramatically last week when iPhone users learned what seems obvious: that the location services they enjoy are enabled by Apple collecting location data — but something not so obvious: A consumer can, with a simple hack, access that data themselves.

The term VRM is a play on acronyms (if there is such a thing as a “play on acronyms,” it should be called a POA), as CRM is the acronym for Customer Relationship Management, an innocent sounding term that represents a massive technology-industrial complex designed to collect, store, organize and apply in ever-varying ways, all the data possible about “we, the customer.”

CRM can range from your contact management software to Salesforce.com to the way we’re going to one day get eyeball transplants so billboards won’t recognize us (okay, that last part was a joke, a reference to the Tom Cruise movie Minority Report).

I’m not going to attempt to explain VRM in this post other than to say, everything smart I know about the internet, I can trace to Doc Searls — and “Project VRM” is something he has been working on for several years as a fellow at the Center for Information Technology & Society (CITS) at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and a fellow alumnus of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University.

Here’s a paragraph from Doc Searls’ Project VRM wiki that captures the idea of VRM:

VRM is the reciprocal — the customer side — of CRM. VRM tools provide customers with the means to bear their side of the relationship burden. They relieve CRM of the perceived need to “capture,” “acquire,” “lock in,” “manage,” and otherwise employ the language and thinking of slave-owners when dealing with customers. With VRM operating on the customer’s side, CRM systems will no longer be alone in trying to improve the ways companies relate to customers. Customers will be also be involved, as fully empowered participants, rather than as captive followers.

So, why would I choose today to post this item?

This morning, there’s a NY Times op-ed piece with the headline, “Show Us the Data. (It’s Ours)”. The piece is definitely focused on the right principles: “If a business collects data on consumers electronically, it should provide them with a version of that data that is easy to download and export to another Web site. Think of it this way: you have lent the company your data, and you’d like a copy for your own use.”

However, the examples of initiatives the writer points to may lead the reader to believe that government-led initiatives are the best route to take. That may be the best route one day, if companies don’t, themselves, join in the types of initiatives Project VRM is trying to foster.

However, it is important to recognize there are lots of startups, non-profits, academic and open source / grassroots (note: where I’ll place my bets) and even big-company initiatives in this arena, as well. It is also important to note that this issue is not something that sprang forth last week: For as long as I can remember, there have been those who embrace the internet, but who believe relationships (and identity) should belong to the users and buyers, not just hosts and sellers.

I will be writing more on this topic in the future. I just wanted to post this to alert people that the next big thing is not going to be about what others are doing to collect your data and lock you into their data-protectorates. The next big thing is going to be about you having better ways to access and use the relationships and data that belong to you, in ways that recognize that markets are conversations — not plantations.