Elucidating “Confused of Calcutta”

One of the deep thinkers on technology is JP Rangaswami, whose blog Confused of Calcutta I have been reading for some time. But while he writes with erudition, he sometimes misses his targets, especially when it comes to enterprise software. As Dennis Howlett has commented – his approach is “way too esoteric for operational people to get.”

I have been sitting on two of JP Rangaswami’s (JPR) theoretical musings for some time while I tried to figure out what they were getting at. One is Thinking about the Social Enterprise, the other is a concept he proposes about application types (pillars) of enterprise software.

In the social enterprise blog, JPR talks convincingly about customer-centred communication, but there is still something missing for me. A socially-enabled enterprise should be able to include any object – what about being able to follow entities inside the enterprise, not just people but also things, like orders, parts and processes? From a financial and operational perspective, how could social enterprise activities be interpreted in terms of measurable outcomes?

Last year, MIT professor Andrew McAfee put the social enterprise movement into context, referring to an InformationWeek article which noted:

Part of the reason social networking tools still aren’t mainstream at most organizations is because Enterprise 2.0 is still considered more of a “movement” than a business imperative. The movement’s evangelists employ the kumbaya language of community engagement rather than the more precise language of increasing sales, slashing costs, and reducing customer complaints.

The good news, according to McAfee, is that he and others are working on creating compelling evidence for the operational guys.

Turning to the other topic, I discovered JPR’s concept of “application pillars” sometime later. It’s been around for a while, in 2005 Phil Wainewright summarised it.

Publishing: Any application that generates data will act as though it’s a content publisher, using RSS or similar to publish its data. The significance of this is that it reduces all of these applications to the level of raw feed generators …

Discovery: This is the application that gives everyone a “Google experience” — a single, homogenous database where everything is stored and where everything is discoverable … the information database is open access, with access and authorization controls added only as necessary for specific items or classes of information.

Fulfilment: This is the application that makes things happen, most notably for customers. Identity management plays a crucial role here, controlling the catalog choices that are shown to each user and their rights to approve shipment.

Conversation: All the channels of collaboration between people, either inside the organization or beyond its walls.

It took me a while to grasp the concept because it didn’t seem right, in fact rather simplistic. In my opinion, the pillars fails to recognise that enterprises are not just about data.

For organisations that make and store physical things, rather than just move information around, I struggle to see how the pillars would cope with the activities of a transaction – something that involves ordering, making, storing and distributing an item.

Moreover, one of the critical aspects of business that ERP systems help to manage – processes – doesn’t seem to fit into the pillars concept. Perhaps what is needed is a modification to include two more pillars – transactions and processes.

I apologise for taking so long to comment on these two concepts, but I believe the issues raised by JPR deserve to be given serious attention as the basis for a new framework for enterprise software – not just left as vaguely academic ideas. JPR comes from a background in banking (Dresdner Kleinwort Wasserstein) and telco (British Telecom), which makes me wonder if there are aspects he doesn’t appreciate about businesses that actually make or sell things.

Let me know if you think I have mis-understood either, or both, of these concepts.