An interview with Barney Twinkletoes from Santa about Enterprise Web 2.0

There has been a lot of talk this year about Enterprise Web 2.0 and a number of interesting case studies have appeared. Well, this week I had the opportunity to interview Barney Twinkletoes, a senior associate with North Pole-based social welfare organisation, Santa, about how they are using Web 2.0.

Barney was excited to tell me that while the Santa organisation was one of the world’s oldest social welfare organisations, they weren’t afraid to try new things. Of course it wasn’t all jolly to begin with.

A first the big fella’s IT manager wouldn’t touch this stuff – he told me that with our mission critical systems we only had one chance to get it right on the night and he wouldn’t let anything ‘flaky’ compromise our systems.

However, during the year myelf and a few other senior associates got together and started a bit of a skunk works – all we had was an old PC that lived under my desk! I can tell you, it was pretty exciting but at the same time we felt it was a do or die situation where we had to come up with some really useful ideas that wouldn’t risk our core operations. In other words we had to add value.

And this is exactly what Barney and his skunkworks team did during 2007, including:

  • A wiki that was initially used to manage information about the different products and suppliers that Santa uses, that then evolved into a tool to track and manage information about different toy laws in the 150+ jurisdictions around the world where Santa delivers care packages.
  • A mashup, using Elf! Maps and their CRM system, known as the N-or-N database.
  • Each skunkworks team member also started a blog and they implemented an Enterprise RSS system for the team.

Each of their Web 2.0 projects was an instant success and when the Elf! Map mashup actually saved the day during a dry run of their annual toy distribution in June (“Christmas in July”), the IT manager had no choice but to start looking seriously at Web 2.0 approaches. In fact, during the next 12 months we should expect the map mashup to evolve into a consumer service where parents can add comments and the N-or-N database itself will be moved to Elfazon‘s new EasyElfDB platform.

However, one thing they didn’t expect or plan for was the role of social networking sites. In the beginning the IT department blocked social networking sites but it soon became clear that the policy was unworkable and was affecting staff moral. Barney explained:

Well, you know the younger elves who are less than a 1,000 years old, they just live and breath this stuff – so in the end we had to unblock Earbook and Elfspace or risk losing them, and you know there is a war for elf talent right now.

Of course we’re not quite sure what to do with sites like Earbook, but we know we can’t just ignore it just because we don’t understand it.

I asked Barney if he had any advice for people in other organisations that wanted to introduce Web 2.0 ideas. He simply said,

I just remember what guy in red says: If you believe it, it will come true.

From small twitters, a big online next generation KM conference grows…

Earlier today, Luis twittered that his abstract for the knowledge management conference was rejected, so I suggested we run our own online conference. Of course, once you plant the seed of an idea with Luis, well say no more

while trying to wrap up everything at work since tomorrow is my last working day for the remaining of the year, earlier on today in Twitter a crazy thought came up from James Dellow after I mentioned in one of my twitterings how one of my abstracts for a conference event, taking place next year, on the state of social computing, was rejected. From there onwards, Dennis McDonald also jumped in, along with Steve Collins, Kelly Drahzal (a.k.a. Kellypuffs), Mark Masterson, Nancy White, LittleLaura, Ryan Boyles, Thomas van der Wal, Ryan Lanham and Jasmin Tragas so far. And before we knew it we had a whole bunch of folks in Twitter interested in the overall event (Plus those who contacted me already offline!).

Hmm. Now I have decide what I’m going to present on? Something to look forward too in the new year 🙂

Pre-School of Hacking

Heard a great story today about our youngest members of the Internet generation. Someone I know who works in a pre-school was sold a computer system for the older kids to play with… they were assured that the computer could be configured so that they could only access authorised games and software. No, it didn’t take some of them long to figure out what to do to get to what they wanted.

Enterprise computing is more than skin deep

Fellow CSC’er and Twitter friend, Mark Masterson, adds his two cents worth on enterprise sexiness in response to Jevon MacDonald’s contribution to the firestorm:

I think what must happen is that the existing enterprise systems will have to change to accommodate these new modes of discourse. As for the second point, it seems blindingly obvious to me that the existing systems will continue to have a valuable role to play for what Sig and James have taken to calling the “easily repeatable processes”. Those exist, Jevon, and they generate value, and many of them are best served by letting them be. What I find interesting about what’s on the horizon is the possibility of adding value to all of the “barely repeatable processes”. But I suspect you’re mistaken if you think that social software is going to provide some significantly better way to do the ERP’s. No tool is good for all things — hammers are only good at nails, and screwdrivers are best for screws. There is no silver bullet, and social software isn’t one either.

As I said earlier, “Sexy” is such a poor word to use in this discussion. Not because I’m a prude, but I keep thinking that this keeps us focused on what’s on the surface. I mean underneath Twitter, for example, is an easily repeatable process (“ERP”) that supports barely repeatable processes (“BRP”). And what do people hate about Twitter – when the ERP bit goes down. So when we get down to it, both the enterprise and Web 2.0 computing environments run on ERP.

The question is, can the Web 2.0 computing cloud provide a better model for ERP than the traditional enterprise computing environment? And can enterprise computing change to make use of that cloud? In the meantime expect to see lots of Web 2.0 inspired enterprise BRP front ends appear that continue to run on unsexy enterprise ERP systems, but don’t expect this to be the end of that story – after all, would Twitter be the same if it was running as a traditional enterprise system?

The Search for Application Perfection

Back in 2004 I co-authored an article that asked, does the perfect intranet exist? Now, as the dust mostly settles around the firestorm about “sexy” enterprise applications, I wonder if the problem with enterprise applications is that the enterprise is looking for application perfection?

Of course in some enterprise situations system “perfection” is not only desirable, but essential. However, when we consider the number of large organisations running on uncontrolled spreadsheets, despite the known risks, this suggests that perhaps people are more willing to trade off perfection for practical usefulness than we think. BTW I think “sexy” is a rather poor word choice, perhaps something like “utilitarianism” instead? I mean, like twitter friend Martin Koser I’ve yet to find a sexy wiki either:

Are enterprise wikis sexy? Most people don’t think so – but I think they get it wrong…Wikis soon gain “cool tools status” – just because they offer room for flexible emergent uses, coupled with great simplicity.

However, here is the ironic twist with enterprise software… an “enterprise” is really a loose collection of individuals, a complex system if you like. Unfortunately large, heavy and decidedly unsexy enterprise software is produced by large, complex companies to be used by other large, complex companies. And its why right now people in organisations can’t help themselves from buying large, heavy enterprise software, yet they know they will also keep using a spreadsheet (or equivalent tool) to fill the gaps. This goes for the vendors too, who often “don’t eat their own dogfood“.

You can see where this is going, right? If you want sexy enterprise software, look for companies – both vendors and customers – who are prepared to change the rules. And in a long winded way, I find myself back to James Governor, who had a hand in stoking the firestorm that Scoble started, and I’ll give him the last word:

In the 20th century economic success in IT was established by raising barriers to entry. In the 21st it will be about lowering barriers to participation. Economies are networked, and the invisible hand is a great one for random acts of traction.

Just can’t stop that mobile social media beat

One of my favourite workshop questions around Web 2.0 is to ask when people first used email – at work, where they were educated, or at home? With the right mix of people in the room, its a good way to highlight how we are in the middle of both a generational and technology change.

From some recent conversations with clients about Web 2.0 and related topics, it occurred to me that mobile Internet access is now following a similar consumerisation path – more people have or will soon have access to mobile Internet through the mobile phone they own than the people with a mobile computing device provided by their employer. Admittedly there are some anomalies, like the Canadian oil field worker who used his mobile as a wireless modem and ran up a huge bills, but for the purposes of an always on, always connected social media lifestyle I would say that consumer mobile Internet access is a generally affordable option right now for early adopters.

However, and more like the impact of Web-based email than email alone, mobile consumer Internet access is an interesting disrupter in the workplace because if an employer chooses not to allow Internet access to certain sites, well for the first time employees have the option to access it themselves using their own technology from within the workplace.

Startup Weekend coming to Sydney in early 2008

Brad Kellett, a Wollongong-based blogger and Twitter friend, is planning to hold a Startup Weekend in Sydney in early 2008. You can register your interest on Brad’s blog.

A Startup Weekend is a “54 hour event where a bunch of technologists get together to build a community and company“. The part that makes this is a little different from something like a barcamp is that the founders from the weekend own the company that emerges at the end of the weekend… interesting, right?