Facebook and the Enterprise: Part 9a: Meandering around with ecosystems

My apologies to those who’ve been waiting for Parts 9 and 10 of this series; there have been a number of things on my mind, and I wanted to freewheel along, dwelling on other subjects, while pondering on this. It’s like when you want to remember something and can’t ….. the best way out seems to be to let your subconscious “agent” do the work while you move on to something else … striving to remember only makes the problem worse…. you know what I mean.

Anyway. Ecosystem. A big word and probably meaning many things to many people. If I go “define ecosystem” via Google, the first result returned is this:

The complex of a community of organisms and its environment functioning as an ecological unit.

What was that again? [Or, as my primary school PE teacher Mr Deefholts used to say, while cupping his ear, “How much?”). You may have found that definition more helpful than I did, but I doubt it somehow. But then it looked like a “sponsored” result, so I will move on.

The next definition of ecosystem looks something like this:

An ecosystem is a system whose members benefit from each other’s participation via symbiotic relationships (positive sum relationships). It is a term that originated from biology, and refers to self-sustaining systems.

The third definition goes like this:

e·co·sys·tem (ēkō-sĭstəm, ĕkō-) pronunciation

An ecological community together with its environment, functioning as a unit.

Elsewhere I found this:

a functional unit consisting of all the living organisms (plants, animals, and microbes) in a given area, and all the non-living physical and chemical factors of their environment, linked together through nutrient cycling and energy flow

And this:

a community of living things and the environment in which they live

Why am I spending so much time on this? I think that there’s a lot for us to learn, a lot for us to understand about what makes a virtual community tick. And we’re going to have to arrive at a common view as to what an ecosystem is, in the context of communities and social networks.

danah boyd, in a related context I was privy to, recently said “I don’t think that you can evaluate a system’s technological worth out of the context of its users and their intentions and expectations”.

I think danah’s bang on the money, as usual; I really like her insights. [danah, I hope you don’t mind me quoting you “out of context”].

Where I work, we’ve been going through the laborious process of bringing together our network, process, product and IT skills into one coherent “converged” unit. We did this because we believed that was the only way to get real focus on improving the customer experience. A customer experience that is comprised of the platforms, the people, the processes and the customer alignment.

Too often, people tend to think of the “platform” as the ecosystem. I think this is wrong. So let’s try and define ecosystem again, in the context of Facebook and the Enterprise, drawing on some of the definitions earlier:

  • An ecosystem is a community, an integral functional unit.
  • An ecosystem consists of living organisms as well as physical and chemical environmental factors.
  • An ecosystem promotes the flow of nutrients and energy.

It is in the context of this definition of ecosystem that I want to look at Facebook and the Enterprise. Most people are comfortable with the social network and community aspects of all this; many are also comfortable with the idea that there are many overlapping communities, and that a person belongs to more than one community.

We have to get used to the fact that every enterprise is a community. That the boundaries of the enterprise extend. That this extension encapsulates the enterprise’s customers, partners, supply chain and customer chain. That neither customers nor supply chain participants “belong” to just one enterprise.

There was a time when enterprises had platforms, the platforms were proprietary, and as a consequence the ecosystems were proprietary as well. In fact we had siloed platforms and siloed ecosystems. That was over a quarter of a century ago. As systems became more open, so did platforms, and as a result the ecosystems became more open as well. This openness created a lot of value, drove a lot of the economic growth we have witnessed, created many new winners and a few new losers. The entire opensource movement is an example of the value generated by open ecosystems.

Take the case of the Indian offshore software industry. When I started working in software, everything was proprietary and siloed. Way back in 1980, there was already a well-established offshore software industry. But it wasn’t much use. The model was broken. So you had things like Tata Burroughs Limited, providing proprietary offshore services to Burroughs customers, only available through Burroughs onsite services, with everyone well and truly locked in. Most of the value stayed with the vendor not the customer, and growth was stifled as a result. Then along came the break-up of Ma Bell, the emancipation of System V, the (coincidental) emergence of the PC, the AT bus and the clone, of X-Open and POSIX and a zillion flavours of Unix, and voila, even before Linux, the seeds had been sown. And today you have Infosys and Wipro and Tech Mahindra.

And IBM, with its zillion different proprietary operating systems and its departmental silos, struggled to continue. Found itself needing to reinvent itself. And did. Around Linux. [By the way, ten years ago, who would have believed that the day would come when Apple would be worth more than IBM? Other than Steve, of course :-). Incidentally, Apple’s case is fascinating in the context of what makes an ecosystem open or closed, why such a “proprietary” stack succeeded. Why Apple themselves appear to be telling the world that 25% of the purchasers of iPhone intend to hack it and use it for a network other than the one it was tied to. Why the dinosaurs of the music industry unwittingly helped Apple along. All to be covered in a separate post. ]

Back to ecosystems. While there have been significant technological advances over the past few decades, one of the biggest barriers to the ecosystem model is itself technological.

The firewall.

I’m no expert, but to me the firewall was designed to form a perimeter around an enterprise, a thou-shalt-not-pass barrier with intensive checks. The concept of the firewall seems to be based on the world consisting of disconnected islands of enterprise. This will change. This must change. The overlapping communities model that is emerging requires it to change.

The borders of the enterprise will have to get more and more porous, until a time comes where the border has disappeared. People will belong to multiple communities, those multiple communities will overlap in many and varied ways. Innovation will blossom at the edges of the communities, as professions collide, as the distinctions between some of the professions continue to blur. And it is up to us to ensure that technology does not become a barrier for such creativity. The historical firewall is just an example of such a barrier. The concept of the firewall will continue, but perhaps it will become more personal. Like identity. Like authentication and permissioning.

I will write more about ecosystems. In the meantime,  I thought I’d share some ecosystem principles, again in the context of Facebook and the Enterprise:

  • 1. The ecosystem does not constrain its people, processes or platforms; they are free to enter or leave at will.
  • 2. The ecosystem is nourished by information. Information that is created by the actions, conversations and transactions of its people. Information that helps define, shape and grow the ecosystem.
  • 3. People must be free to take out whatever they put in. Just like people make deposits and withdrawals in the banking sector, people should be able to make information deposits and withdrawals in such an ecosystem.
  • 4. In addition to being nourished by information, the ecosystem thrives on an alternate source of energy. The interactions between the people. The information derived from those interactions, information that is not available except as a consequence of those interactions. This energy is unique to a given ecosystem, and is jointly and severally “owned” by the ecosystem and its participants.
  • 5. These interactions are themselves encouraged and intensified by applications. Applications that are built on to open multisided platforms that form the heart of the ecosystem. Applications that are meaningless without the people who use them, or the information they create.  Applications that catalyse value within the ecosystem and assist its growth.
  • 6. Within an ecosystem, there’s a lot of NEA about. Nobody owns many things. Everybody can use many things. Anybody can improve many things. There’s a lot of personal responsibility (as in what you say and do and make available) as well as communal responsibility ( as in what actions a community takes). Facebook, in this context, is a provider and enabler of the environment in which an ecosystem is built. It is not the ecosystem. But, in my opinion, it’s a good enabler of ecosystems.
  • 7. Within an ecosystem, there’s a lot of YOYOW about as well. You own your own words. You own your own apps, their configurations, their environment, their capacity, their performance, their bugs and their fixes. You own your own data. You own your own relationships.

You own your own you. And with that ownership there comes a set of rights as well as duties. Liberty, not licence.

More later. I’ve rambled on enough. Time for some feedback.

In part 9b I will use the feedback to leaven my heretical mutterings, bringing together the disparate strands of Apple’s success, the role of opensource, contract versus covenant, all in the context of Facebook and the Enterprise. As soon as time permits.

17 thoughts on “Facebook and the Enterprise: Part 9a: Meandering around with ecosystems”

  1. Thank you for this post. Your vision of the future — porous enterprises in place of firewalled castles — is compelling. But it isn’t just existing enterprises that are afraid of the fuzzy, intertwingled future, it’s individuals trying to negotiate what it means to be who they are on/in the increasingly social web. Owning your own words can come with great risk (who will see this blog post? forward this email?) but… what else is there? The present is messy, but the future needs to get even messier, and the infrastructure needs to support that.

  2. JP, if you really want to get your mind around ecosystems, I am afraid you will have to go deeper than definitions. That is why I suggested you check out James Grier Miller’s LIVING SYSTEMS book. I have no idea if you followed up on my advice. If you did, you have discovered that it runs to more than 1100 pages; but you can get most of the general ideas by the time you get to page 50. Having done that, you can then review those seven principles and decide whether you want to reexamine them!

  3. You’re right. personal ownership and accountability is critical for all of us. Critical in order to demolish nanny states. Critical in order to stop the nonsense of litigiousness. Critical even to get us to the right place in the context of privacy and confidentiality, of security, of the three Is of identity, intellectual property and the internet. Critical for our collective future.

  4. Stephen, I have not yet received the Living Systems book. When I do, I will make sure I do the first 50 pages quickly. Always happy to review and rewrite the 7 principles as I learn more. Thanks

  5. While I mostly agree with your general notion – I don’t think facebook (in it’s current form) is the communication platform that you could use for real community building or to base enterprise communication on, because of just one thing – there are no tools for group discussions there. I still don’t understand why it is so that you can have alerts about all kinds of events – but not about new posts in group disucssions. I’ve commented on this on my blog as well: http://brudnopis.blogspot.com/2007/10/facebook-and-conversations.html

  6. JP have you looked at the underlying vision of OpenId, i-names and all that jazz?

    I would think something like that – some version of a technology that allows every individual to integrate all the fragmented bits and pieces of their personal digital presence at will is going to be required.

    What’s more, this thing will have to be owned and operated by the individual concerned and not tied to a service provider.

    If it happens, it would enable your vision of you own you.
    It would also change the relationship between service providers and individual consumers sharply in favour of the consumer.

    There will be a lot of resistance to that for obvious reasons.

  7. “ You own your own you. And with that ownership there comes a set of rights as well as duties. Liberty, not licence.” ☺ great line JP

    I would like pose the following question, how much does liberty really matters in a social networking platform such as Facebook, and is the real issue to the members of that virtual community one of maximum exposure to a selective audience within that “walled garden” as opposed to the ability to port the embedded attribute (text, pictures, personal details, etc) that constitute the “self” at will?

  8. “You own your own data. ”

    Not with you on the last point. Bit like saying an author owns the language he or she uses. Or a random string of words he or she used. Or worse, if you somwhow gain ownership of an authors words, the idea is now yours.

  9. Great post (as usual :)). It is true that Web Services started over http as a way to go through firewalls…
    On the ecosystem theme, I’d like to add one suggestion: “Out of control” by Kevin Kelly. This is a classic reference about autonomous systems, vivisystems, biomimetics, etc (merging AI, biology and artificial life). Although it now a little dated, it is full of compelling information and details from scientists who study “real ecosystems” (bottom of seas, forests, meadows, etc.). For me, it has been an eye-opener on what a “real” ecosystem is. By the way, the beginning of Jared Diamond’s “Collapse: how societies come to fail or succeed” comes to mind also (chapter about Montana).

  10. Hello Mr Rangaswami, Im participating in a debate the topic is “Urbanization improves environment” The improvement has to be with reference to the population and the economic development. Kindly give me some ideas when you find the time. Thanks
    Aseem Naphade([email protected])

  11. Thank you Mr JP, there is lots of information to be analyzed from the sources you gave, will go through it and if i have any doubts will get back to you. Thanks once again!

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