One question I continually get from many in the web design and dev community is, “Why do you spend so much time focusing on things inside the firewall? You know all the cool stuff is happening out on the open web.”
At times I get tired of answering that, but most who know me most of my 20 years doing dev and design work around tech tools and services has been on tools and services inside the firewall. While I love the web and the innovations that happen there and things get worked out early there, inside is where I see the real value.
Having a fascination with economics and the “pure flow of information...” mantra I highly value information and the tools and services that provide the value chain of data, information, and knowledge. These digital tools were not the easiest things to work with for many people and it has always been a passion to have the tools and services work better. More optimally, so people could have better access to information so to help them make smarter decisions around things that matter(should we find a new supplier, do we have a problem, do I need a coat, does our packaging need to be weather resistant, etc.).
What matters and what is work and what is personal is a very blurry line, but having the information and ease to access it so we are smarter in making decisions it the key. It comes down to efficiency, which is highly related to ease of use.
What fascinates me most with inside the firewall and always has is the need to understand how people use (can’t use) the tools that have been built or deployed for their use. Things that are seemingly logical and intuitive from the developer and designer’s viewpoints are not on target with those in the organizations. When I started working managing, maintaining, building, and improving the tools and services people use it was inside the firewall as the web did not exist yet and the internet was still in its nascent stages, even if it had been around for 20 years already.
The groups of people I working with needed to use these tools and services to perform their job as the paper and non-technical means of performing their tasks were replaced by computers or were never possible with out the power of digital computations. What was true then with dealing with the populations of co-workers and others inside an organization using the the tools and services is still true now, success of a product is measured by its percentage of use from those who must use it, efficiencies gained, lack of bugs, and improved time to complete tasks.
Web projects seemed to lose these values as it was easy (relatively) to get a few thousand, hundred thousand, or few million (over time) using a product or service. But, those services were only a small slice of the population, even a small slice of the population who needed a service like the one being offered.
In the last five to eight years or so that truth around small slices of the populations using tools and services is never more relevant than around the flood of interest in social web sites and tools. Having built, managed, and iterated on intranet groupware and community tools for tens of thousands of distributed employees and business partners, I had great interest in seeing what happened with social sites on the web.
It was no surprise to me when variants of the web’s social tools and services started coming inside the firewall that adoption was less than optimal, because these social tools were being honed and iterated on early adopters and assumptions that are very counter to the majority of the population (some 90% are outside of this early adopter trend using the tools).
Early on I learned the easiest means of getting adoption with tools and services is to emulate who things are done by people without technology mediating the tasks or flows. Regarding social interactions these is never more true.
Most of the social tools are not very social in the way that the majority of people are social. This is very problematic inside an organization because businesses and organizations are social by nature and must be to have any success. People must be social and interact with each other inside the organization (meetings, reviews, research, sharing findings, etc.) as well as to the outside with their customers and clients.
What many of these social tools, and business tools in general, have done is add friction to social interactions that are required by businesses to survive. These newer class of tools are moving towards emulating true human social interactions more closely, but we still have a long long way to go. Where the social web tools have fallen down is focussing on the early adopters, but in reality that is core group of people who come to these sites and services (services like AOL, Yahoo, and Facebook have over the years broken into more mainstream customer bases, but the customers are most often not using the really new “cool” stuff). The lessons learned from most web social services often don’t work well inside organizations as they are not lessons learned from a full broad population, like the ones inside an organization.
Businesses and organizations have real needs for these social tools, as their organizations are quite inefficient and they know it. They know the value that these tools can bring and many have experimented with these tools in the past year or few, but have been stumped by lack of use and adoption.
Organizations are forever trying to optimally capture what they know (hence knowledge management interest), get information out easily to those who need it (portals), connect employees to each other (groupware), connect to customers and business partners more easily (B2B tools), and better connect the company to its employees (HR tools). All of these have received incredible funding and effort over the years. Some have decent payoffs to the organization (return on investment (ROI)), but rarely are they the large successes that had been promised or hoped for. One of the big reasons is the tools got in the way.
Getting the tools out of the way and allowing for people to interact as needed and as is comfortable is where success lies for tools and services in organizations. This is why I am passionate about this area and why I like focusing inside as not only do I see real solutions lurking in what has been done in what is called Web 2.0, but business and organizations see that same.
What is needed is using the understanding of organizations, the new tools, and marrying that to how real people are social and interact so to get to real optimal solutions.