Facebook and the Enterprise: Part 4: Four Pillars

When I started writing Confused of Calcutta, I included the following text in About This Blog:

I believe that it is only a matter of time before enterprise software consists of only four types of application: publishing, search, fulfilment and conversation. I believe that weaknesses and corruptions in our own thinking about digital rights and intellectual property rights will have the effect of slowing down or sometimes even blocking this from happening.

I believe we keep building layers of lock-in that prevent information from flowing freely, and that we have a lot to learn about the right thing to do in this respect. I believe identity and presence and authentication and permissioning are in some ways the new battlegrounds, where the freedom of information flow will be fought for, and bitterly at that.

I believe that we do live in an age of information overload, and that we have to find ways of simplifying our access to the information; of assessing the quality of the information; of having better tools to visualise the information, to enrich and improve it, of passing the information on.

I believe that Moore’s Law and Metcalfe’s Law and Gilder’s Law have created an environment where it is finally possible to demonstrate the value of information technology in simple terms rather than by complex inferences and abstract arguments.

I believe that simplicity and convenience are important, and that we have to learn to respect human time.

I believe we need to discuss these things and find ways of getting them right. And I have a fervent hope that through this blog, I can keep the conversations going and learn from them.

I haven’t changed my mind. I still think Publishing, Search, Fulfilment and Conversation are the Four Pillars of enterprise software.

I see that some of you are still concerned about the level of hype there is about Facebook; some of you are angry because it’s not open enough; and some of you believe that today’s enterprise applications are fit for purpose. So let me try a different tack.

Assume there is no Facebook. What do I want to see in enterprise applications?


First off, I’d like something that tells us who is out there, a directory of sorts. For some people this is an internal-only directory, for others it can include partners and supply chain participants. A small number are prepared to consider the possibility of actually having customers in that directory.

I would like to see everyone in that directory. I can’t understand why it should be any other way. We’ve learnt this lesson in the post and telegraphy world, in the telephony world, and to a lesser extent in the e-mail and instant messaging worlds. But are we prepared to learn this lesson in the enterprise world? You know the answer.

What many of the social networks are doing is vying for this Great Directory in the Sky. And for sure we can have more than one, so that we can have a whale of a time reconciling information between the directories. Some people like that. I for one would prefer to let the market decide. Go where the market goes.

In order to make the directory useful, I would want to see some additional information about the people in that directory. Contact details. Descriptors of various sorts. Preferences and profile information. Who is the best person to keep this information accurate and up to date? The person himself. Again, why don’t we do this in enterprises? Probably because there’s a department out there who think it’s their job.

By the time we add these two bits together, we are approaching the issue of Identity. Basic information plus contact details plus some preference plus some profiling, leading to a complex array of permissions and authorities and authentication information. Some bestowed by others upon you, some acquired by you, some earned by you, some selected by you. Thankfully, with things like OpenId, we are making progress on making information like this consistent and shareable and standardised.

So now we have an enterprise full of people, we have people in the extended enterprise as partners and supply chain, and we have customers. Everyone with their identity, authentication and permissioning stuff all laid out apple-pie order. Consistent. Clean. Collaborative.


What next? These people have relationships with each other, relationships that help everyone decide what the permissions need to be. Permissions to do with what you can see and what you can’t, what you can read and what you can’t, what you can do and what you can’t. So we need something to capture these relationships, so that we can use the “rules” of the relationship to guide a number of activities. In an enterprise these relationships are usually to do with the department the person belongs to, and the reporting line.

What utter tosh.

Those are not relationships. They are irritants. Irritants apparently required in order for people to allocate costs and profits accurately. I will believe it when I see an enterprise, any enterprise of scale, where this is true. In the meantime I prefer to state that these things are irritants that allow us to pretend to know our costs.

I am prepared to change my mind on this, the day I meet a customer who cares about what department I work in or whom I report to. Hasn’t happened in three decades.

Relationships are different. Whom do you talk to? Whom do you hang out with? What interests do you share with others? How did you get to know this person or these persons? What is your reputation amongst your friends and peers? Who would recommend you for anything? Why? Who stands in the gap to say that what you say is true? Who will stand with you in a tight corner? These things are relationships. And so much more. I know I have described them appallingly, but it’s better than departments and reporting lines.

So we need relationship information. Groups and networks and causes and beliefs and skills and interests. Who is the best person to provide this information. You. Who decides who is your friend? You. And your friend. Bilaterally.

Relationship information is absolutely critical in solving authentication and permissioning problems, in solving privacy and confidentiality issues.

Once we have the directory of identity and relationships set up, we can do many things. Like what?

Four Pillars.

Well, in most service industries, people appear to “work” by doing four things:

They look proactively for information. They search for things.

They receive information because they said they were interested in receiving that information. They subscribe to things.

They talk to each other using various forms of communication: letter, e-mail, audio, video, text, IM, blog, wiki, twitter, whatever. They are even known occasionally to talk to each other face to face without use of technology.

And they transact business as a result. Within the enterprise. In the extended enterprise and partners and supply chain. With customers.

People do all this now. But we do not have the tools to do the job well. Search is not free-form and wild-cardable and probabilistic; most of our search is very forms-driven and deterministic. Publishing or syndication is done using reams of paper producing reams of reports that no one reads. Mainly because it is done in elephant-sized chunks rather than bite-sized chunks. We need to be able to subscribe to changes in data elements rather than whole humongous lumps of data. Conversation is constrained by the difference in the technologies used. And fulfilment is often held up because we have weaknesses in the static data we use, things are not always up to date. Wrong names, misspellings, wrong addresses, wrong or missing authorisation information, poor delivery or fulfilment instructions.

That’s what Four Pillars is about. Syndication. Search. Conversation. Fulfilment.

Where we are. Now.

And guess what, everything is getting a lot easier, for a number of reasons. One, we have convergence between telephony and computing. Two, we have the web. Three, we have democratised innovation. And four, we have petri dishes like Netvibes and Facebook.

That’s what they are. Petri dishes. Where we can experiment with the culture of business and see what happens.

Now back to Facebook. Why am I so fascinated by it? Because it is collecting a critical mass of people, and that is very useful. The people are different from the MySpace people or the Bebo people. And this is important because we also have a number of challenges.

  • One challenge is to do with Generation M, they have different expectations from us, and the tools and techniques that are evolving have much to do with them. There is a process of comsumerisation of technology we need to understand and adapt to.
  • A second challenge is to do with the Three Is, Identity, Intellectual Property and the Internet. We need petri dishes to work out how to deal with these things correctly, in the new world we live in. A world where so much can be digital, can be archived, can be searched, can be shared, can be retrieved.
  • A third challenge is to do with democratised innovation and the Wisdom of Crowds, how we can make use of the population to create increased collective value.
  • A fourth challenge is to do with Long Tail approaches rather than Hit Culture approaches.
  • A fifth challenge is to do with openness and transparency at the same time as privacy and confidentiality.
  • A sixth challenge is to deal with network effects and scale, the sheer challenge of the number of people and devices that are going to be always connected. Moving to a real-time world.
  • A seventh challenge is to do with doing all this in a world of global sourcing, global markets, global customers. And global talent. Which needs global collaboration.

Guess what? I am learning more about what the enterprise needs by having something like Netvibes to play with, by having something like Facebook to play with. Inherent within them are concepts to do with relationships and conversations, with identity and privacy and confidentiality, with syndication and search and conversation and fulfilment.

Now I can go further, and work on things I can do with Four Pillars when there is a large population of users, things to do with knowledge management. More of this later. In Part 5.

14 thoughts on “Facebook and the Enterprise: Part 4: Four Pillars”

  1. Very true that social networks are trying to be the directory, and are increasingly being a platform for conversations. Unfortunately, the platform is still centred around the network and not the individuals. Today, I still cannot communicate with someone from another network. IMHO, the social networks have to be interoperable to provide a higher value. I have some good contacts in Facebook, unfortunately this is true of LinkedIn and Orkut too.

  2. Abhijit’s comment reminds me what a powerful tool Usenet was for socialized communication, even though it was limited to text. Having been launched long before the Internet was a reality, it maintained an excellent model of existing gateways that allowed any one who belonged to any of an odd dozen networks to participate. Things may have improved with media-rich packaging since those dark ages; but I have yet to make any social ties through any of the software in today’s “brave new world” that were anywhere near as strong as the ones I used to maintain through Usenet. It looks like, in this case, those who ignore the past don’t even know when repeating it might be a good thing!

  3. Stephen, I spell my name with an “i” at the end, not a “y”. Not that it matters, except that it entitles me to join a facebook group called People who have to spell their name out for others….

    I will go read your counterargument. Didn’t realise I was putting something that contentious forward….syndication, search, fulfilment and conversation aren’t that radical, are they?

  4. Our brand, our personal identity, what we bring to a business will always be at the core of any career or business we undertake. Yep, I agree. With you too, on the point about learning to listen. If we listen it’s amazing what we learn…

  5. JP,

    This is becoming a pretty cool series of posts that seems to me like a step-change in the way you see the four pillars being realized.

    Stephen’s taking issue with your choice of words, rather than the underlying meaning that the pillars are, to me, a metaphor for.

    I think that software in general is becoming simpler and more societally oriented, and this extends through to Enterprise software in the ways you talk about.

  6. Not a step-change, Jonathan, it’s more to do with having something I can point to. Four Pillars is a lot easier to describe when you have an example. Which is what my Facebook posts have been about.

    Stephen continues to challenge me, I don’t think it’s about semantics, I feel it is a lot more to do with the difference between doing and being; so even when it is hard or I get bored, I still check his posts and references.

    In fact I check all posts and references in all the comments I receive, and spend quite a bit of time on the dissenting ones.

    That’s how I learn. I would worry about groupthink otherwise. The nice thing about blogs is that they bring together people with common interests rather than common views. We learn from the view differences.

    So it is with Stephen and me. I learn from his differences.

  7. Jonathan, it looks like something got deleted from your comment; so I am not sure WHAT you saw my post as a “metaphor for!” However, I did not intend it as being primarily about a “choice of words.” Rather, I was trying to apply the exercise of “unpacking” as a way of getting at the actual business processes BEHIND the words (since too much of both evangelism and consulting ultimately boils down to what John Cage so aptly called “empty words”). It is only through an appreciation of the complexity of those processes that we can eventually arrive at technologies that solve problems, rather than create more of them!

  8. Hi Krishna, welcome to the conversation. I’m particularly keen on seeing people who are involved in education being part of this, because I really feel we can collectively make a real impact there. As Dave the LifeKludger is wont to say, it’s all about access.

Let me know what you think

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