Blogging was where we began, and how we built our company so we have preserved this archive to show how our thinking developed over a decade of developing the use of social technology inside organisations

Bottom-up and inside out – the future of enterprise IT?


The two related concepts of Enterprise 2.0 and Software as a Service (SaaS) have been getting a lot of attention recently, as both are seen as vital to the next stage of the huge enterprise IT market. The question is how and when will these trends begin to significantly transform the way people experience IT within large companies
Dion Hinchcliffe is an informed and relevant read on matters relating to Enterprise 2.0. His predictions for 2007 were good, and in terms of existing practice, his coverage of IBM’s excellent work in this area at the Web 2.0 Summit is worth bookmarking. Last week he picked up on Euan’s popular and engaging piece on enterprise 2.0 that suggested the best thing companies can do is to “get out of the way” and “allow” their smart people do it themselves, and responded with some thoughts on where Enterprise 2.0 is heading

Enterprise 2.0-style IT requires a shift to much more openness using a Web model, a shift in preferred end-user tools, and flat collaborative space in order for it to work and get reasonable returns. Or we’ll just replace Microsoft Office and e-mail with E2.0 apps and mostly be right back where we started. Those that represent to be doing Enterprise 2.0 solely through tool rollout and no infrastructure remediation will almost certainly be among those reporting less encouraging results.

Some of the challenges to a completely bottom-up approach

Euan’s vision is lovely of course, but the reality is a lot more mundane and a lot more complex – it is the prerogative of the thinker to make such statements and the curse of the architect to try to make them a reality 😉 As Dion implies, enlightened internal bloggers cannot easily evolve a company-wide Single-Sign On system that can support their grassroots efforts, nor solve the problem of internal data and application integration to make their externally-hosted wikis connected with the business. The key infrastructural elements are often inside the firewall and inaccessible from outside, and rightly or wrongly much IT policy is not really ready for the Software as a Service aspects of this. Without work on the level of infrastructure and data integration, there is a real danger that internal social computing efforts will fail to have the transformational impact that we believe they should
On the technical level, the integration challenges are non-trivial:

  • identity / Single Sign On (SSO);
  • internal application integration;
  • legislative obligations for data retention, privacy and audit; and,
  • availability.

But the integration of people, practise and (dare I say) process is even harder, with challenges such as:

  • devolving responsibility and promoting a DIY culture;
  • encouraging people to grow their own internal and external networks;
  • stimulating conversation and debate by overcoming fear of exposure; and,
  • for many people, simply overcoming the idea that any form of online communication beyond email is “not part of their job.”

Do we really think that companies should abrogate their responsibility to support positive change in these areas? Of course not, and Euan makes that clear as well. The problem is that right now the only people who are capable of growing their own social tools inside the enterprise, or by using externally hosted services, are the more technically adept. What about the others who we need onboard to create a representative ecosystem? In our work, we get more of a kick from empowering people who are less technically advanced to do things they could not previously imagine than we do from anything else in our engagement consulting – and we do this with the consent and support of our clients. Of course, in an ideal world, entirely new online social networks and capabilities would evolve of their own accord, but we have to get to that ideal world from this imperfect one
Of course, there is a fine line between top-down encouragement and the kiss of death for social computing initiatives, as Dave Snowden reminds us in his discussion of this issue. But when approached intelligently, official support and bottom-up ownership need not be mutually exclusive, just as social tools do not seek to replace every piece of internal IT architecture currently in use

Software as a Service

To what extent can Software as a Service (SaaS) make the process of bottom-up IT development easier and help work around non-cooperative IT departments
It seems everything is going SaaS these days, with Cisco buying Webex and various players lining up to fight Google and Microsoft for the remotely hosted Office apps market (Office 2.0). In the world of social tools, the enterprise wiki platform Confluence recently launched a hosted version for companies who want to try the product without waiting for internal IT resources. A variety of blog and wiki services (such as Socialtext) already exist in hosted versions, and are widely for external communications, publishing, marketing and beyond-the-firewall collaboration. These uses are ideal candidates for SaaS as they do not require much integration with internal systems, nor do they contain mission critical or secret information. Other products in the social tools stack are also available remotely, such as social bookmarking tools and even newsfeed management systems
In the software industry as a whole, there is a huge amount of energy and funding being invested in new delivery mechanisms for services, and the proliferation of tools goes way beyond what we might think of as conventional SaaS, such as, CRM systems and accounting packages. Adobe’s Apollo tool, which could be the best occasionally-connected RIA tool yet, provides a compelling argument for managed widgetisation. There is even talk of Photoshop going virtual. The new Ning make-your-own-social-network looks gorgeous, and is very well executed. Will it be the next Myspace? Probably not, but it is heading in the right direction by recognising the need for intimate vertical social networks, of the type Lars refers to here
SMEs are hungry for access to software they could not support themselves on a pay per usage basis, as David Terrar reports. But in larger enterprises, a lot of this growth is experimental, as Denis Howlett remarks about Gartner’s recent ‘buy SaaS’ recommendation. Also, as my friend Sig suggests, larger companies need much greater customisation that SaaS currently allows for. SaaS will play an important role in the future enterprise 2.0 landscape, without a doubt, a
nd there are areas that lend themselves to this approach already; but our experience doing this kind of work inside large international companies suggests there are still areas where SaaS is either not appropriate whilst the majority of mission critical corporate data lies inside the firewall, or needs to be better integrated with internal systems
The challenges to enterprise SaaS adoption are gradually being addressed, and there are two areas in which we expect to see some progress.
The first is in the area of specialised appliances or systems that live inside the firewall, where they can happily integrate with internal apps ad data, but which can also be updated and fed by managed connections that extend outside the firewall. The Socialtext managed appliance seems to be a good example of this approach, which is a workable compromise between SaaS and purely internal systems
The second area is enterprise software that takes advantage of managed connections with web services to add value to internal systems. Movable Type was a pioneer of this approach with its blog ping service to feed a public list of recently updated MT blogs. Their impressive roadmap for the enterprise version of this market-leading blog platform suggests they will take this a lot further in MT v4
Despite the hype and hope invested in SaaS, at Headshift we still spend far too much time banging our heads against a brick firewall and sometimes overcoming the most absurd levels of bureaucracy to do some basic computing and networking tasks. Right now, it is far easier to integrate external data and application services and bring it inside the firewall to complement internal systems than it is to share internal systems with external applications. This is a problem for the SaaS model
One of the biggest issues is of course identity. OpenID offers some hope that we are moving towards standards that will see widespread adoption, but OpenID can’t yet solve the problem of how people in companies can connect their internal corporate IDs (LDAP, AD, etc) with external services on the internet. Mapping LDAP identities to OpenIDs through some kind of proxy service on the firewall is possible, but I am not aware of (m)any companies who are doing this
It is also worth noting that SaaS is not the only game in town, and may not have it all its own way in the enterprise. There is also an alternative vision that poses a threat to the SaaS model: namely, Microsoft’s “Software + Services” model that sees a central role (and choke point) for Sharepoint and other internal software, extended by their own Windows Live services. Sharepoint, whilst being largely unloved by users, is often seen as a life-simplifying move for IT departments because (a) it is what Microsoft is telling them to use, and (b) it is centrally managed with easy Office desktop integration

Top down or bottom up? Internal systems or externally hosted services?

Technologists are never far from a sci-fi metaphor (so forgive me), but in Star Wars terms, I think that each new major generation of technology sees itself as nimble Luke Skywalker attacking the monolithic Death Star. I am sure email and even systems such as CMS and DMS were once seen in much the same light as wikis and blogs today. The problem is, we are not trying to blow up the Death Star, we are trying to make it better. We do not want people we work with in client companies to feel they are flying off in lashed together Wiki-wing fighters to take on the might of organisational enterprise software. We want them instead to take their rightful place alongside other internal systems and then let natural selection find the right balance and relationship between them
Our best guess at how this will happen is to build a lightweight, social interface onto existing enterprise data and tools, so that people can find what they need more effectively, share their thoughts and ideas with their peers, and ultimately humanise the internal landscape. We have talked about this before, and we are making good progress. We work with individual groups, departments or networks to help them build blended, situated social software supported by data integration and connected infrastructure in order to take control of their relationship with corporate systems, connect and collaborate with others. It is not a completely hands off approach, nor is it a top-down approach, but it aims to empower people (not just geeks) and create network effects and organisational dynamics that are neither predictable nor entirely controllable from the centre
With regard to SaaS, it seems the early wave of ASP vendors for traditional software models are simply a transitional play. Real SaaS should be built of the web. for the web, with all the iterative release cycles and user feedback that implies. But the emphasis will shift from software, which is just a mechanism, to services, which is the actual product. Some of these will be new and imaginative forms of what we might recognise as applications, but many will be pure data or data transformation or sharing services. The lines will be blurred. But whilst we will see adoption among SMEs for cost reasons, enterprises will not embrace SaaS for their mission critical systems or data until such a time as we find robust solutions for the key integration and data management challenges
When the biggest obstacles to using SaaS inside the enterprise have been removed, regardless of whether it has been truly embraced by the enterprise mainstream, then can the fun can really begin. Lines of business will be able to extend their core systems by bolting on a variety of externally-hosted specialist apps and data services, with easy SSO and data integration across the firewall. Then, SaaS will become truly transformational as enterprises leverage the creativity and diversity of the web to create and extend applications in real-time. Putting IT in the hands of people with actual needs has got to be the most important goal in the technology industry, and SaaS will surely play a role in that
So, whether the future is top-down, bottom-up, inside-out or outside-in – or (more likely) all of the above – the overarching trend is for software and IT to become more of an underpinning function, and for the actual data and interaction services to emerge as the real stars of the piece. If we can do this whilst making ordinary peoples’ experience of IT simpler and more relevant to what they want to achieve, then perhaps a combination of Enterprise 2.0 and SaaS will fulfil the revolutionary potential that some analysts are ascribing to them.

11 Responses to Bottom-up and inside out – the future of enterprise IT?

  1. By Euan Semple on March 22, 2007 at 11:23 am

    “Euan’s vision is lovely of course, but the reality is a lot more mundane and a lot more complex”
    I wish I was a grown up……
    If you read the post properly I wasn’t actually advocating doing nothing nor am I saying things are bottom up!

  2. By Lee Bryant on March 22, 2007 at 2:30 pm

    Hi Euan,
    I would like to believe I am quite capable of reading your piece, unless perhaps I just “don’t get it”. I do not recall implying that you are not grown up (you’ve got more grey hair than me for a start ;-), but I did write:
    “Do we really think that companies should abrogate their responsibility to support positive change in these areas? Of course not, and Euan makes that clear as well.”
    Don’t you have anything to say about the substance of the piece or the implementation challenges faced by both companies and users today?

  3. By Euan Semple on March 23, 2007 at 12:43 am

    The reason for my comment about being a grown up was that you are a tad patronizing in your post.
    I chaired endless and mind numbing “Active Directory Workgroup” meetings in a vain attempt to get things to join up in a way that I originally thought necessary. My colleague John, who as you know worked with me, faced all sorts of brain crushing, senseless incompatibilities and inefficiencies and mostly overcame them. I know what gets in the way of doing this stuff at a practical level.
    However I do think you didn’t read my original post properly or perhaps didn’t understand it. I was not saying that doing nothing was the best option – it is the worst. The post was a reaction to people turning Enterprise 2.0 into a big complicated thing like every other IT development before it and risking burying it under it’s own weight.
    What we have to do is complicated, subtle and risky all at the same time and how we do it is crucial to the success of something as fragile as getting people to talk to each other when they have been trained not to.

  4. By Lee Bryant on March 23, 2007 at 2:53 pm

    Sorry if you felt the post was patronising, which was not my intent – especially as the post was mostly about the adoption challenges of SaaS rather than your post. But you still seem to think I don’t understand your post despite the quotation in my previous comment that clearly shows I have not misinterpreted your words as advocating “do nothing.”
    Tell me if I am wrong, but to me your post suggests the best thing companies can do is to get out of the way and allow people already doing this work “unofficially” to get on with it (i.e. to support them), perhaps by giving them some free/cheap tools to work with; but also, you are saying the company should engage with these people and channel their energy inside rather than outside the firewall.
    I agree wholeheartedly with this, insofar as my little bear’s brain can understand it ;-). But to turn this into actionable strategy within companies, I think we need to drill down and start to answer some of the questions I tried to raise in my post, such as how social tools can integrate with corporate data and systems and how they can become part of core business processes. If we don’t make some progress towards these goals, then social tools end up ghettoised or else they are not taken seriously by the people we need to engage to change organisational behaviour.
    To a certain extent, the only people already ‘doing it’ right now are people confident with social tools, but they are in the minority. If we are to humanise the enterprise using social tools, then we need to engage the silent majority of potential second wave adopters, and they are patently not doing it for themselves. They need some help and encouragement, and that will often mean the company needs to get them started.
    I appreciate the point about the dangers of turning this sort of work into a new generation of over-complicated Enterprise IT, and we must remain wary of that danger, but the need to solve some of the integration challenges is always going to be a major part of what makes social software adoption succeed or fail within the enterprise.
    Based on your experience, and leaving aside the question of whether I did or did not interpret your post correctly, do you have any views on how to achieve enough integration without falling into the trap of big, slow, expensive IT projects that are “rolled out” on an unsuspecting (and often uninterested) workforce?
    I firmly believe the most effective integration is that which brings social tools into existing workflows and practice (i.e. process-level integration), but our experience suggests that without some of the basics in terms of technical integration, then it is hard to connect the conversations supported by the tools with day-to-day business practice.
    We have been using a number of techniques to do both types of integration inside large companies, and we are learning what works and what doesn’t, but I am always keen to learn from others.

  5. By Euan Semple on March 23, 2007 at 8:25 pm

    Contrasting my visionary loveliness with your firm grasp of reality was bound to get a reaction!
    Contrary to what you say the people doing this already are not all familiar with the tools by a long chalk and in fact for many BBC staff the tools we implemented were their first hands on contact with this stuff.
    I also disagree with your assertion that second wave adopters are patently not doing it for themselves – they are. In fact despite the fact that the tools we implemented at the BBC have not being particularly promoted since we left they have continued to grow impressively with the forum having been accessed by something like 75% of staff and the number of registered wiki users having doubled to just under 5,000.
    However I would agree that it is in engaging with new groups and spotting opportunities for the growth of the environment that the real work lies and it is this hard work that I referred to in my second comment.
    As to “workflows” and “process-level integration” there is already an abundance of people in business talking that sort of language and I don’t feel inclined to add to it. The amount of the important work of organisations that can be systematized to that degree is relatively small and in my view invariably not the important stuff that makes the place tick.
    My own aspiration was to help enable conversations that get the job done – however people chose to interpret that – and that was enough of a challenge. If you succeed in that there is no way that the environment will be ghettoised and people quickly become addept at linking out from the online conversations to existing day-to-day business practice without having to over complicate the process.
    As to the tools and Saas I believe that there is such a range of situations both in terms of technology and culture that there needs to be a range of options available to people. However there is something about the social, highly linked, and ephemeral nature of the world we are creating which suggests that flexible, agile, plug and play approaches will predominate.
    This is the antithesis of conventional IT and the conventional management of existing environments and represents a considerable challenge both to those introducing change and those maintaining the status quo. I take comfort however in the number of CIO’s who are approaching me in an attempt to tun what can appear to be a threat into an opportunity.

  6. By Jon Husband on March 23, 2007 at 10:33 pm

    I just came back an hour ago from a presentation titled “The Web and Work 2.0” by the IBM VP, Emerging Technology.
    He was pretty clear about a lot of their customers now getting very interested very fast in easy-to-create and easy-to-use mashups, web services and widgets, that in his opinion it was going to get a lot easier to create customized services quickly based on the business problem and the particular work flows of a specific unit ot person, that such customized solutions wouldn’t last long until the next iteration was necessary, that the large integrated ERP systems were like “electronic concrete” (my term) poured over business processes and that the investments in those larger systems may never get fully amortized, that customers will refuse to be prisoners of the existing business processes and will insist on what they want how they want it (hence the flow of re-iterated mashups) … etc.
    And that doing all of the above will get easier and easier pretty quickly.
    I will have the presentation soon, I think, and will be glad to forward it if you guys want to take a look at it.

  7. By Lee on March 24, 2007 at 2:50 am

    Hi Jon: I have been really impressed by what IBM are doing. I missed (but have seen before) Philip Borremans’ talk at an internal communications conference yesterday on IBM’s internal blogging, and I really enjoyed Ian McNairn’s overview of the development of social tools inside IBM at the last Unicom Social Tools event. The enterprise mashups stuff I have seen was by Rod Smith and it was very good indeed.
    Hi Euan: aha! I see what you mean. I didn’t use visionary in a perjorative sense at all – implementation without vision is not good, in my view, nor does it imply you are not also engaged in making new ways of working a reality, which of course you are.
    I think the point about the Beeb is that you implemented the forum, profile, wiki and blog tools and then let people get on with it, which is great. But in a sense, the tools came first, thanks to you and John. So this kind of underlines the point about the need for companies to support people and do some of the infrastructural remediation that Dion Hinchcliffe mentioned, as well as just encourage people who are able to self-serve. It’s a bit like the Matrix – not everyone is ready to jack themselves out of it yet without 😉 But as you say, more people thankfully are reaching out to use simple web tools to work around the organisational calcification of conventional IT. They are often the people you and I both talk to in many companies, and the encouraging thing is that they are to be found almost everywhere, even in what are ostensibly the most conservative organisations. Time is on our side.
    It’s great that you don’t want to add to business ‘process’ language, and I commend you for that, but I think there is also an element of ‘how do we get there from here’ in that we are bringing a whole new, challenging vocabulary to some businesses and unless we can express that using terms and concepts understandable to them, then it is sometimes hard to take people with you. There’s a balance, I guess.
    CIOs should definitely talk to you, and it is a good sign that they want to, in my opinion! I always enjoy it anyway. See you for lunch 🙂

  8. By Euan Semple on March 24, 2007 at 3:45 pm

    Forgive my terrier like instincts Lee, and at risk of slipping into pedantry, but we didn’t just “let people get on with it”. John and I, and others, spent spent a load of time in the forums behaving in certain ways and influencing through asking questions. This is a long way from both laissez faire and command and control, and I believe involves skills that many managers will need to learn.
    Looking forward to lunch!

  9. By Lee on March 24, 2007 at 5:50 pm

    Thanks for clarifying – I knew this was the case, but it is worth emphasising. I agree this is an important skill and also a key difference with the way things were done previously.
    In our projects, once we have worked with groups to develop a set of use cases or user stories to guide a particular initiative, and then we have helped build some kind of blended social software bits and pieces, we also spend a lot of time and effort gently working alongside people to help them find their feet and develop their own norms and techniques to work in a more social, connected fashion.
    It always seems to be people who largely agree with each other who can argue the fine points for hours at a time. At this rate I am thinking I should book us an hour of paintballing before lunch 😉 I’ll send some dates and times this week and next…

  10. By Dennis Howlett on March 26, 2007 at 3:09 am

    Lee, I’m surprised you’re talking about internal applications talking to social computing tools in the terms you do.
    I’m seeing the emergence of ‘Excel’ style integration that is looking to take feeds from apps that spit out XLS readable data. You may recall that JotSpot had a rudimentary version of this. Blogtronix has integrated EditGrid into its platform for an important contract with Reuters that will see its 70K community have ready access to both data and functionality (albeit limited at this time) into a social computing platform it can manage and evolve in a controlled manner.Controlled by users that is.
    The logic is simple, what if? decision taking is the most common form of problem, often requiring fragments of data. The view I take is those problems and solutions can be exposed and shared through social software then you have the starting point for the creation of incredibly rich, user led applications.
    Having said all that, I am 100% with you (and, I suspect, Euan) in acknowledging that adoption is the tough one. I’ve concluded that we have to live with a 1/9/90 community where 1% are super active ,9% are active – when they need to be and the remainder are lurkers – consumers of information who add little value but to whim access provides value which lifts individual performance at zero penalty to the whole. .
    As an aside, AppExchange is an interesting approach, especially since the addition of AppSpace. If you are aligning your business to customer need and expressing that through SFdC then all sorts of interesting possibilities emerge.

  11. By Lee on March 27, 2007 at 1:06 am

    Hi Dennis,
    Not sure what is surprising about my thoughts on the integration challenges for Saas…
    The XLS model sounds great – I will try to find out more – and sounds like exactly the right kind of precursor to a variety of mashup apps. But don’t misunderstand my aim as being a more ‘grown up’ or ‘controlled’ integration. That’s not it at all. I just know that we have to get there from here, and right now there are some basic scenarios that need dealing with, such as:
    * I want to grab a link to a file in a DMS and blog about it, whilst spawning a new wiki page that the corporate tax team can access via single sign on.
    * I want to run a search across CMS, DMS, data,etc and then subscribe to this as an ATOM feed which renders in a widget on my personal page
    * I want to use versioned file attachments in a simple wiki where me and my practice group can answer queries FAQ-stylee, but for regulatory reasons, I can’t just create new copies of the files in question on the wiki – they need to stay where they are
    * I want to use ATOM or RSS as a default transport for news within the firm, meaning both internal and externally sourced material must be aggregated in a form that any one of my 5,000 colleagues can subscribe, generating valuable attention metadata that can spot common and emerging themes.
    * etc
    These all sound simple, but they all pose integration challenges that only internal enterprise social tools can currently accomplish, not SaaS for now at least (AFAIK).
    SaaS is the future, no doubt about it, and in some areas as you say it is happening now, but my interest is transforming the way organisations communicate and share knowledge internally, not just bolting on some (albeit great, useful) web tools.
    I’m actually a lot more optimistic than a long, meandering blog post might suggest 😉