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Web 2.0 doesn’t work in the mothership, but…


I attended a workshop organised by Microsoft on Tuesday entitled WAX (Web Architeture… no idea what thee X is for), which was described as…

a strategic cross-industry workshop that will provide an open forum for architects and thought leaders to examine the changes underway in both the consumer and enterprise space.

It was a strange event – partly because of the mix people who were invited and partly because despite the workshop itself being a bit of a damp squib, some really useful and insightful discussion occurred anyway.

The attendees were mainly people who represented Enterprise (which was nicely described by MS as a company with >4000 employees) – either directly as employees, as consultants or as software vendors.

It’s clear that “The Enterprise” wants to adopt the perceived benefits of the Web2.0 era into its business, but clearly there are all sorts of challenges.

Well, based on the discussions we had and also some thinking I’ve had over the past couple of months, I am now writing this blog post about this very subject.

Web 2.0 doesn’t work in the mothership, but…

So let’s me start by putting my flag in the ground: Yes, I do think “Web2.0 stuff” (however you choose to define it) has a place in big business/enterprise/etc. But I don’t think it can occur as part of the enterprise itself. (caveat: unless that enterprise is already working a radical way unlike other 99.9% of enterprise setups in existence)

I’ve worked and developed in an enterprise environment. It’s a slow, methodical, complicated business. It has to be. Generally speaking enterprise systems are expensive to develop, require high reliability and have complex architectural and stakeholder structures.

This is not how “Web2.0” works, but you didn’t need me to tell you that – it’s kind of obvious. Oh, and whether you like it or not, you will always have enterprise systems – the world will always need massive, sophisticated systems.

These systems tend not to suit the aspects of Web2.0 such as social software, rapid development and the permission to experiment with the potential of failure (albeit failure fast).

So if you want to add a bit of “Web2.0”, my quick and straight-to-the-point suggestion is to do your “Web2.0 stuff” in a satellite operation at arms length from the rest of your operation.

Define the goals, create a team of suitable* people and set them free away from the constraints of your enterprise.

That might sound like an R&D department to many, but this is about working on potentially customer-facing, real world projects – not bluesky thinking or stuff that isn’t ready to bring to market.

Sure, it depends on what you want to build as to whether this option is suitable, and ultimately depends on how integrated to your enterprise the project needs to be.

But think about it – do all your projects really need to be that integrated to your enterprise systems? Are there opportunities where a small set of the right APIs could allow suitable projects to be given a greater freedom to evolve organically and take a direction different to the rest of your operation?

I’m still baking this idea, and trying to devise examples of where this might have worked that are outside the BBC (BBC examples might be NDA’d, or just inappropriate to divulge).

This is just some “initial thoughts”… Will post more when I have a clearer idea of what this all means!

Published in Thoughts and Rants

One Comment

  1. Wotcha Ben. Interesting post.

    First, I think the BBC is not a typical enterprise at all. It seems to be somewhere between large public sector organisations and commerical enterprises, but has the advantage of being full of people who want and know how to communicate, which is why some of its well-known social media case studies are not actually as remarkable as they might seem, IMHO.

    Second, whilst you are right that “Web 2.0” and enterprise systems are very different, and building scalable enterprise-wide systems is very hard, you should bear in mind that not all enterprise systems are actually used enterprise-wide.

    I think what we will see is a separation between enterprise architecture and underlying systems (email, data transport, DMS, maybe others) on the one hand and higher order applications that use them on the other.

    Social software tools such as blogs, wikis, social tagging, bookmarking, recommendation systems etc all fall into the second category, and they should not seek to become enterprise-wide systems (although their output may be aggregated enterprise-wide).

    We are working with enterprise clients to create lightweight social inerfaces onto corporate systems and data that provide users with a local, usable window (perhaps for a single team) onto enterprise-wide systems. Part of the logic of this is that enterprise systems do the heavy lifting very well on the whole, but their interfaces are anti-social and suck big time. So, why not use them as part of the underlying architecture whilst allowing users much greater diversity of front-end tools?

    This is why – I think – we don’t need to worry about Web 2.0 tools not being appropriate on an enterprise scale. I don’t know of *any* system that can serve the needs of 5,000 people in exactly the same way. If we deploy Web 2.0 stuff in an intellligent way it can act as a force multiplier and add huge value to existing old-skool infrastructure.

    There are quite a few large companies out there experimenting with blogs, wikis and other tools. The next stage is how to bring them into the mainstream and connect them up with each other and with formal systems.

    I wrote something yesterday about how we address this challenge, and what skills are required to do it well:

    Would love to chat more about this next time we catch up – it’s a biggie!

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