When Forrester first introduced the customer experience (CX) ecosystem concept three years ago, we found that companies’ attempts to innovate their CX were limited by tunnel vision. They couldn’t see beyond the surface layer of individual touchpoints to understand the intricate web of behind-the-scenes dynamics that really create the customer experience.

To update our research on the CX ecosystem, I’ve spent the past few months conducting dozens of interviews with senior executives from a range of industries. I’ll reveal my complete findings at our Forum For Customer Experience Professionals East next month, but I’d like to start the conversation here by sharing one piece of good news: Companies are starting to get it — at least theoretically. Most companies now understand that interactions deep within their own organizations and outside their borders determine the quality of all customer interactions.

However, companies still don’t appreciate just how vast and porous CX ecosystems have become. And they are vast, indeed. CX ecosystems spread far and wide to include the entire dizzying array of factors that impact the customer experience. Customers searching for online reviews are influenced not only by sites like TripAdvisor but also by personalized Google search results and companies like Bazaarvoice that collect and syndicate review content around the Web. Customers seeking technical support for repairs to potentially dangerous appliances take advice via social media from people manufacturers can’t even identify. Customers’ experiences in a brick-and-mortar store are affected by everything from their mode of transportation to what they happen to read on their smartphones as they walk through the parking lot. Innovative businesses like Amazon.com, Apple, and Zappos.com affect CX ecosystems in every industry when they leave customers wondering why other businesses can’t deliver similarly great experiences. Nasdaq customers might remember when their trading was interrupted by squirrels — twice.

The distinction between customer-facing and behind-the-scenes is disappearing rapidly, making CX ecosystems far more porous than companies think. Customers and employees use technology to connect directly, bypassing the frontline staff and public relations departments that have traditionally been gatekeepers. When frustrated customers use the “executive email carpet bomb” technique to email grievances straight to companies’ C-suites, senior executives often answer personally and bypass all internal procedures and chains of command to address customers’ problems. Websites like Consumerist.com offer forums for employees to discuss their companies’ internal practices and offer advice to customers. (One of my favorite threads features a shipping department employee explaining why a customer’s roll of bubble wrap was shipped wrapped in bubble wrap.)

One especially innovative organization has embraced the porousness of its CX ecosystem: NASA. That’s right, a federal government agency. Part of NASA’s mission is to inform the public about its activities, so NASA thinks of every interested person as a customer. To make sure the public gets accurate, detailed, and timely information about all the amazing science and exploration happening there every day, NASA encouraged its employees to make social media part of their daily work routines. Today, almost all of NASA’s more than 480 social media accounts are operated independently by NASA scientists and engineers — not by the Office of Communications — who help inform and engage the public about their projects.

As customer experience competition gets fiercer, businesses that fail to grasp and act on these and other facts I’ll reveal about CX ecosystems are going to have a harder time competing. Three years ago, companies could get away with making simple tweaks to the same old customer experience, but now that the Customer Experience Index (CXi) shows the laggards stepping up, good CX simply isn’t good enough. That’s why I’m so excited about my new report and keynote speech on the CX ecosystem. They are going to offer companies deeper insight into what their CX ecosystems are, how they work, where they’re headed, and what to do about it. Businesses that embrace this knowledge will be better positioned to thrive in the age of the customer. Businesses that don’t will make great post-mortem case studies for our next update of the CX ecosystem concept.