Saturday, September 08, 2007

Bottlenecks and Headaches

A new article on Computer World suggests that IT is a "key barrier to corporate Web 2.0 adoption", according to speakers at the Office 2.0 conference in San Francisco.

An example of how the IT team were slow to facilitate Web.20 projects:

[The] head of digital media at the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts (NESTA)  in London, noted that she first had to bypass IT to get Web 2.0 technologies to the group's end users. Once she started the effort, she said, "IT started to realize it was happening without them anyway. They weren't interested until they started to get multiple requests from around the business. Eventually, they came on board."

The Pendulum Swings

Information Technology trends swing along a pendulum from complete decentralization to centralization. With Web 2.0 the pendulum is currently swinging away from central IT control.

In general I think this is a good trend,  since the pool of "developers" will deepen if it starts to include technical end users who are able to  create and configure their own systems (perhaps by mashing up a bunch of third party web services) or install and manage third party tools.

I'm just worried that a whole bunch of enterprise problems are being reintroduced by this decentralization, with much less transparent "ownership" of the challenges than if an IT team is in charge of development.

For instance, later in the article, the head of digital media at NESTA says that her organization

 uses many free tools, so it's easy to prove their value to management. "The value is instantly visible, especially when you do an ROI and your investment is zero," she said.

If a tool is "free", is it really zero investment? What is the opportunity cost of adopting and trying to integrate a free tool, without evaluating the alternatives? What are the costs of moving data in and out of it over time?

On page 2 of the article, there is this quote:

[GlaxoSmithKline Social media champion Lee] White said one of the biggest challenges to corporate Web 2.0 use is that demand generally bubbles up from users, while in the traditional corporate paradigm, upper management decides what tools workers should use.

I would suggest  that "demand generally bubbles up from users" anyway, whether Web 2.0 existed or not. After all, IT staff don't roll out of bed on Monday morning and decide to build a Leave Tracking System - they do it because HR users are requesting it.

I would argue that any "resistance" IT is putting up is probably due to its awareness of the incredible complexity of software development.

Hidden Complexities

Enterprise development is incredibly labyrinthine. A programmer's skill requirements range from user psychology to writing to research and analysis to understanding the basics of contract and intellectual property law - and I haven't even mentioned technical skills.

Keeping on top of information technology issues is a full time job. If end users are empowered to whip together "applications" using the latest services and tools then tremendous productivity gains may result - but what will the implications be?

Some of the open questions that spring to mind when I think about this new development paradigm are:

  • Who fixes bugs in an End-User Developed (EUD) application?
  • Who is responsible for managing code changes to an EUD?
  • In the world of the permanent beta, what happens when a third-party web service that an EUD system relies on stops working or is discontinued?
  • What happens when the service the EUD system is relying on changes?
  • Who trains the other users to use the EUD system? Who documents the system functionality and business rules?
  • What are the legal issues of using Web 2.0 systems in a corporation? Who owns the data? Who is responsible for adhering to the licensing terms of any components?
  • What are the security implications of EUD systems that use third party software or services without any central oversight? Who ensures that security is properly applied?
  • How does a company know what EUD systems are in use if there is no central control?
  • How do these systems talk to each other? Is it important that they do?
  • How does data integration occur if a variety of EUD systems expose the same types of information, such as user account details?
  • Does a company need development standards anymore? If so, how does it enforce them on end users?

Are we heading from a bottleneck to a headache?


  1. Nick

    I think there is a slight difference with Web 2.0 technologies. When I referred to "grassroots", I meant the actual users. I have never yet seen an individual user roll out of bed and ask for a leave tracking system either, because it provides them no individual value. On the other hand when I show a user a wiki, they start drooling for that functionality and begin imagining the possibilities.

    I understand the complexities that IT deals with, I am just saying that the functionality that web 2.0 brings real power to the individual user.

  2. Hi Lee, I agree with you about the individual fact usually with SharePoint I introduce the collaboration aspects and show how easy it is to use wikis for internal knowledge transfer (not blogs so much as corporations are nervous about them - especially in regards to litigation) and people are always very keen on the potential.

    I'm trying to get my head around the impact this decentralization will have on IT teams...may I ask, what do you do at GlaxoSmithKline to bridge the gap between the IT team's view of the world and the end users'?

  3. Hi Nick,

    I missed your post first time around, but am glad I stopped by to have a look... while I appreciate the coverage :-) I just wanted to clarify a few things. You seem to think that I have gone out like a loose cannon and started posting sensitive data all over every website with rounded corners and a lack of vowels in the name. We use free tools like to store information that isn't sensitive - and as for "getting the data out", all you have to do is click export. We also use things like WebEx to connect people in remote locations - and I can't see them going out of business overnight. Same for Yahoo (we use Yahoo Pipes). Just because a tool has been lumped with the 2.0 label doesn't mean it can't be trusted.

    "...without evaluating the alternatives..."
    I can assure you this is not the case. We *must* look at alternatives - as a public sector organisation, we have to justify every decision that is made in terms of suppliers of services. We also have to look at value for money, and I have to say large enterprise solutions can't even come close to offering the value for money you get from alternatives like ThoughtFarmer, SocialText, BlogTronix, CommunityServer or Confluence. In fact, all of these were evaluated alongside Sharepoint when choosing our Intranet solution (we eventually went for ThoughtFarmer). I'm not saying Sharepoint or RedDot or other such software doesn't have its place, but when you are an organisation of 90 people like NESTA, it's using a sledgehammer to crack a walnut. An expensive, complex sledgehammer.

    And as for who trains the users: I do. Just because it's not 'owned' by IT doesn't mean there's no control. My team are trained to train users, and to instruct them on which tools to use for what. We administer things like Central Desktop, keep track of what it's being used for, etc. But to be honest, the beauty of most of the latest generation of 2.0 tools is that they require next to no training - another benefit in terms of real cost (staff time). And who keeps track of what tools are in use? It's all posted on our internal wiki, so everyone knows.

    I think that many of the questions you pose in your post about security, trust and legal issues are moot points. No one is asking the same questions about email, phone calls and meetings. Who is policing these? Just because the communication is happening via one medium over another doesn't mean it needs special rules, just common sense. Have a policy (which ties in with your corporate Code of Conduct), alert users to it, and trust them to use their brains. Simple as that.

    Miko Coffey
    (Head of Digital Media at NESTA)

  4. Hi Miko, I'm really glad you responded to this. First of all, while I didn't mean to imply that you or anyone in this article was a "loose cannon", I did use the phrase "without evaluating the alternatives", which was obviously wrong. So, I'm sorry!

    The real intent of the post (and this is a theme I have been exploring on this blog) is to try to understand how these Web 2.0 technologies are having an impact in day-to-day business. I'm more interested in the organizational impact than the technical.

    I feel the open questions I asked are still relevant. For example, some organizations are concerned about tracking things like email threads and IM discussions for records management. I suppose that concern will have to be extended to more ephemeral things like wikis. For other organizations, as you say, this kind of oversight would be like using the sledgehammer.

    In your comment you've explained that the governance and responsibility of using these tools is reassigned to the end users but there is still some level of centralization and support via you and your team. It sounds as though you guys are now the bridge between IT and End Users. If so, is this a model you see becoming more common?

  5. Funnily enough, I don't see wikis as being ephemeral at all... in fact I'd argue that it's easier to track what's happened on a wiki than email thread due to the built-in versioning history. You can see who changed what and when at the click of a button, without having to leave the environment. Our Head of Compliance really liked that feature when we showed him :-)

    Re: being the bridge
    Absolutely, this is definitely becoming more common. Many of my peers in other orgs have been saying the same thing.

  6. Hi Miko, you make a good point about the versioning system for wikis (and other content) helping Records Management. As far as email tracking, in SharePoint you can send emails to document libraries which helps with tracking. I imagine other products allow you to do the same thing.

    I suppose if other teams such as yours are now forming a sort of bridge between IT and end users, they will be asking the same types of questions and paying attention to the same types of issues that IT traditionally would. So in that sense nothing has changed - the responsibility has just shifted. Would you agree?


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