Musing about enterprise information and flow


The diagram above is from an article headlined “The Life Cycle of a Blog Post, From Servers to Spiders to Suits — to You” which appeared in Wired about a year ago. Go read the original, the diagram is interactive and instructive.

Why instructive? After all, doesn’t everyone in the blogosphere know about ping servers, search engines, aggregators, ad servers, data miners, ad servers and text scrapers? What’s so instructive about spam blogs? And surely everybody knows about social bookmarking, about linking, and about making comments?

The instructiveness for me comes in the word I left out. Corporations. Enterprises.

In the 21st Century, the web is two-way; as Doc Searls often says, it’s writeable. So, if we take these ideas into the enterprise, build enterprise applications around the web, what are the analogies? Should there be any analogies? Should enterprises be using exactly the same tools as their customers? Why not?

These are the things I’ve been thinking about for a while. Why it makes sense to have a Facebook for the Enterprise without actually competing with Facebook, in fact actually collaborating with them. Why a form of Twitter should be used in the enterprise. What the enterprise equivalent of YouTube is, what the enterprise equivalent of Flickr is. Why all this matters.

You see, I no longer think the diagram (or the article, for that matter) is about blogs. It’s about information. As a result of the writeable web, information has become more liquid, it flows better. Static information required snapshots, and that’s what we’ve been doing for 30 years (or maybe more). Learning about snapshots.

The snapshot analogy led to a plethora of sins, to the way we designed databases, to the way we “inserted”, “amended” and “deleted” data. As we tried to force the snapshots to move around between systems, we hit DRM version 1. Enterprise Application Integration. Otherwise known as paying to bury our data, paying to dig it out again, and then, just in case we haven’t had enough, paying to move it around. And we could do so many wonderfully silly things as a result. Hire armies of people to write code to synchronise things, then hire more armies of people to write code to reconcile the data. Sometimes we missed out the “writing code” bit and just hired the reconcilers direct.

And the platform vendors prospered. And the database guys prospered. The storage guys prospered. The EAI guys prospered. The code writers prospered. The reconcilers prospered. Everyone prospered.

Except the customer.

The writeable web changes all that. Now, very time a knowledge worker does something, we can classify it as search, syndication, fulfilment or conversation. We’re going to look deeply into all this, and we’re going to find……find what? That knowledge workers spend most of their time in conversation. They use search and syndication to augment the conversations, they use fulfilment to execute every now and then, but they spend most of their time in conversation. Within the enterprise, and beyond the enterprise. With their colleagues. With their trading partners. With their customers. With everyone.

Markets are conversations. [Yes, it’s Cluetrain all over again, not just Four Pillars.]

So we’re going to see some things change in the enterprise. Conversation is going to be captured and archived and retrieved and enhanced and allowed to flow. We’re going to use blogs and wikis and twitter and IM and audio and video, we may even have tiny pockets of e-mail and fax and (dare I mention it) telex. Every conversational action will hit an enterprise ping server, populate search engines, aggregators, data miners and online media and even text scrapers. [An aside: The single biggest creator of spam is the corporation.] Every conversational action will have the capability to be bookmarked, linked to, commented upon, ranked, rated, added to, enhanced.

I can even visualise a time when Microsoft and Google and Amazon will have to pay corporations for the right to “serve ads” to their staff and customers. Every time I fire up a Microsoft program they are advertising to me. In the enterprise. At the enterprise’s expense. So maybe we’re going to see brand-free applications in the enterprise, or large sums of money paid to corporations for the right to advertise on the desktop. This could be one of the unintended consequences of consumerisation.

The boundary of the enterprise will continue to grow more and more porous, as enterprises work out that bringing customers into the enterprise is a GOOD THING. Suddenly, we will start seeing these ping servers and search engines and aggregators and data miners shared in communities, shared between participants in the community. The extended enterprise will grow and morph until it becomes a market.

And we’re going to have to ask ourselves what a firewall means in all this, what privacy and confidentiality mean in all this. Because they’re changing. As the enterprise boundary shifts, the “perimeter” concept also shifts, and starts becoming “personal”. It’s already happening.

Just musing. More later. What do you think?

19 thoughts on “Musing about enterprise information and flow”

  1. I agree with the state of information flow as you describe it, it would make life and work within the enterprise much much easier. I can see one important hurdle for some enterprises though: data regulation. Some companies today are heavily regulated in terms of data storage and flow. There are even companies (*cough cough*) that are forced to restrict flow of data between parts of the company. It is hard for such a company to move ahead in the direction you suggest, because it needs to drag along government regulation with it, and that’s even harder to move than multi-thousand people corporations.

    This is by no mean an excuse to stand in the way of good progress. It is however a challenge and an important aspect to be considered.

  2. You make a key point, Yannis. Which is why I am currently reading The Cigarette Century. I need to understand how an industry can systematically bend and corrupt legislation to suit its own ends, using the questionable tool of the lobby system. Regulation is often what happens as a result of corrupt industry. Take Sarbanes Oxley. Think about who gained by its creation. What a godsend it turned out to be for the accountancy firms. What a waste of time for everyone else. Regulation. Pah.

  3. Nice post JP, and I share your view that the web is becoming writeable and enterprises more porous. In fact these are the sort of big long term trends I want to put money behind as a VC.

    You might be interested in taking a look at FluidInfo – a Euro startup building infrastructure for the writeable web. Early stage but with some very clever ideas and attracting the interest of people like O’Reilly, Ray Ozzie and Esther Dyson. I’m not invested, but am trying to help them. Let me know if you would like an intro.

  4. I agree with unbridled enthusiasm, JP. The only question is when and how, not if.

    Obviously the answer is partly generational; the changes will take effect as more and more of Generation M enter the workplace with their prior experience and high expectations. I don’t think we’ve hit the tipping point just yet; but soon. The other part of the equation is whether the enterprise has the tools required to help it tip.

    In my mind, all the enterprise needs is an established standard or framework that can give people inside and outside the enterprise full, elegant control over their data. I imagine a Flickr or Twitter or Blogger where we can share with specific customers, or specific colleagues, or family or friends, or individuals. Or a mix. Or everyone. But not just with photos, or tweets, but with *anything*. And the data can live anywhere we choose, accessible in whatever way the consumer wishes.

    And I’m wondering whether something like Open Social (v1? v2? v3?) can provide this kind of framework. Unless the VC-funded projects match these high falutin’ ideas, I’m inclined to believe that their days are numbered before they even begin. The problem for VCs and entrepreneurs trying to break into the enterprise is that, with the emergence of open source and open standards (or frameworks), external, additional help will be needed less and less.

  5. Phil, it is important to remember that open source is free-as-in-freedom and not free-as-in-gratis. There are economics of abundance at play here, “because effects”. So VCs will change. They are changing.

    Open source is big business. Thankfully, open source is not Big Business. Not so far anyway.

  6. Absolutely, the point I was trying to make was that the emergence of open source and open standards will mean that Enterprises will become more capable of implementing solutions themselves because it’s easier to do so (rather than because its cheaper).

    So I wonder whether this means that less money flows away from the enterprise into the coffers of VC-backed ventures, reducing the chances of a lucrative buy-out or IPO, or in fact the deficit will be offset by those who embrace the “because effect”.

    I also meant that the projects’ days were numbered, rather than VCs – that is to say, projects which aren’t based on open standards, data portability, etc. are unsustainable in the long term.

  7. As with the web itself, the battleground will shift to enabling infrastructures. How to fund and manage commoditised infrastructures. How to enable services. How to empower the customer in all this. We are a long way from home. A very long way.

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  9. The paradigm of flow is interesting and one I’ve been thinking about for a while. One of the stumbling blocks we have to overcome is that our language is not focused on process but rather objects. There was a very interesting New Scientist article about the effect of language on framing and solving problems.

    Without using the right language its hard to understand and utilize flow to solve problems. I am going to watch with interest to see how the language of fluid dynamics filters into the broader conversation over the next few years.

  10. When Man was able to control Fire( liquidity?) food habits changed dramatically. Result: Food available ‘On Demand’.
    More recently, when the power of water became controllable, textile mills and clothing got ‘solved’ leading to the industrial age. Result clothing available ‘On Demand’.

    Liquidity of Energy(carbon fuel based or electromagnetic) was central to the Industrial Era. Which incidentally ‘solved’ the shelter. Result: Space customization ‘On Demand’.
    What was previously available only for special citizens viz., Kings and the likes was democratized and made possible for more common folks.

    What basic need will liquidity of Information ‘solve’? Is it Attention?
    To Know and Be Known On Demand

    Will the Information age make it possible to ‘Know’ anyone/everyone ‘On Demand’? [Yeah, I know Wikipedia is already there to some extent. Future is already there – only unevenly distributed!]

    In that case, Search and Syndication are more basic than the ephemeral Conversation and Fulfillment.

  11. The question for me is whether enterprises actually _do_ want to change? I think most of them choose to resist instead. Just think about your pricing, your key people, whatever you don’t want everyone to know.
    Sure, things tend to get out sometimes, but there is good money to be made of information asymmetries.

  12. Also, does everyone really want to participate in the extended enterprise?
    (I also see some administrative fun to be had with tax returns when I participate in 10 of these, get paid – in some form that might not exist yet – by half of them and my three other clients :)

  13. The thing that strikes me most JP is really in your concluding paragraph ….”the concept alsho shifts and starts becoming personal”. No Shit ! I have multiple conversations with colleagues on internal chat windoes during the day, and many a time, becauseof the open plan favoured architecture these days, there are things I rather not talk over the phone but type away in a chat window….some of them business related and some not. Whilst all our phones on the trading flor are logged as are the various communication channels and cell phones are banned , for reasons obvious, but to have chat channels enterprise wide be ‘visible’ is pushing the envelope on personal & privacy. This will bring us back to being molluscs rather than pearls …social objects no more …conversations will become guarded, will break into coded references, will kill the social framework. Guess what…may even kill productivity. Now, I shall seek more often that chat by the water cooler or take a smoke break more frequently…dunno mate….really dnt know where we headed with this

  14. This is fascinating staff, but I straggle with “how to” aspects of converting unstructured “conversations” into normalized data required to support enterprise business processes. This is one of the loftiest challenges I have encountered in my efforts implementing CRM systems. I agree completely that knowledge workers spent most of their productive time in conversations, but the content is very hard to make useful to their colleagues outside of the context of that specific conversation. Since my background is not technology, but economics and operations research, I was looking at the direction of more “organic”, value driven applications design, where certain people are made responsible (and offered incentives) for distilling specific clusters of information from the conversations they are part of, and enter it into an application. Are we looking at the technology becoming capable of such transformation?

  15. Hey JP .. Just discovered your blog. I agree with most of the stuff you have written .. in the end you have written about firewalls, security and confidentiality in such a two-way world.

    My view in that is that information security which has till now been focussed on protecting the “perimeter” will become more and more information centric i.e. security is not because information is lying in a particular folder or is being transmitted over a particular network. The security will have to be within the information itself irrespective of location. This means that though information is distributed all over the place .. its control can still be centralized to the “person” or the enterprise. An IIT Bombay incubator company is working on exactly such a technology for web 2.0 .. check them out at

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