One more post for tonight on a blog post entitled: "Social intranet products: am I missing something?" In the post, the author muses about the whizz-bang coolness of the new social intranet products, but has some fundamental questions about how to answer questions like: "Where do I find HR information, such as the leave policy?" or "What about the leave form?" He asks: "Am I missing anything?"

No, he's definitely not missing anything. This post touches on a core belief that I've held about product for a long, long time. I see it reinforced time and time again.

The social tools he's been testing out (the Jives and ThoughtFarmers of the world) are doing a wonderful job of following the feature-checklist development model. The conversation goes something like this:

(Enter a breathless guy coming back from some conference) "OMG _____ is the future. We gotta build it NOW!"

Every year, it's something new. I remember there was a time when OpenID was hot. Then social networking. Then microblogging. The list'll go on and on. And a very lazy way of building product is by building these features and just attaching them with crazy glue into your product until you create a mammoth of a product. (I believe this might be called Lotus Notes)

Now, Web 2.0 was great because it put a fresh coat of user experience on it. Voila! Pretty!

But this does not solve the core problem. Each company has a unique culture, and trying to find software that your culture can fit into is a losing battle. I'm of the belief that software should do its simple tasks well and adapt to the user (or enterprise). Whether MT wins in this space or not, I believe the world-class social intranet product of the future is one that (1) is a platform that can be adapted to any business need (2) provides a consistent UI guideline for applications as they are fleshed out on top of this platform (think iPhone apps) and (3) can connect the stories of these applications in a digestable format for users to be empowered to execute on their goals (think Facebook activity stream, but with real business data and reporting).

This is why I so strongly believe in what we do at MT - it's not about creating a checklist of features which appeals to the lowest common denominator - we build a platform that can then be adapted to answer specific business problems. This is something that the other players in the space cannot do - they are all point applications, and will be as such. MT is a platform that evolves with you as your company evolves as well.

Now, the development cost is not cheap. It's not as pretty out of the box (a ding I've been repeatedly reminded of). It's more akin to the painful Sharepoint methodology of development, but because we are open source, we believe in simple open standards, and because we're committed to providing a platform that will allow you to build rapidly, we are quicker to deploy than a Sharepoint.

. . .

Two years ago (or so), I absolutely poo-pooed social networking features inside MT. Long-time readers know my stance on social networking: social networks are not an end, they're a means to an end. I saw too many people asking for features like "user profiles" without understanding how they would be integrated into the experience. When I hear a feature request, I try to filter it through the lens of: "What problem are they really trying to solve? What is their pain point?"

Too many times in professional services, I see clients trying to make a suggestion about implementation (because they're trying to "talk my language") which is completely off. I have to take the discussion up to a higher level about the use cases, then describe a separate solution.

One example of this (for which I've not been validated, so feel free to flame me years from now at my idiocy) is the constant story of "forums integration." Now, I'll go out on a limb and say that MT does not need to build out forum functionality (that's a no-brainer). I'll take one step further and say that it's not necessary to even integrate with forums (even if I wanted to, the existing market of forum software is incredibly pathetic given its maturity). What I hear people saying is: "I want to have more structured discussion about topics inside my intranet."

Unfortunately people have only been exposed to forums, so that's exactly how they'll frame their thinking. Is MT's answer, interactive comments, the right move? My gut feeling would be that this would solve 80% of the potential customers who want forum integration. My biggest complaint is that people think in terms of features instead of problems, and this is exactly why the MP3 market languished until Apple took it over with the iPod. Same with the iPhone.

(This also explains my reluctant to do the often-requested "Vote for features" for the MT community to "drive" the product roadmap - I feel it's less of "driving" and more of a "drag kicking and screaming")

Back to user profiles. Jump ahead to 2010, and we have an interesting professional service deal come in for "user profiles." A few years ago, I would have scoffed and rejected it, except now it fulfills a very specific bigger need that I've been struggling with: "How do I create a single springboard inside MT to capture user-driven activity?"

At this point, social user profiles are less about navel-gazing and finding friends, but a way to provide context for the business activities occuring within their MT ecosystem. And to me, that is a much stronger value proposition than developing a feature that lets me list my political affiliation or my favorite songs.

So back to the point of this original post, which was to answer the "Am I missing something?"

No, you are not. The social intranet players right now are creating a huge repository of features to appeal to as many intranet purchasers as possible. Now, I'm pretty confident in saying you could spend lifetimes trying to do this, but it just won't work. You'll end up with a giant kludge of an application that will appeal to absolutely nobody. Let's focus on solving specific problems - poor developers and IT guys are rolling their own tools to work around the shortcoming of these social intranet vendors.

(Jeez I wrote a lot today. Quantity over quality, baby! There's a good chance I'll take most of these posts offline tomorrow when I realize the Robitussin-induced posts have tons of faulty arguments. But until then, Gute Nacht.)

Posted by roy on January 19, 2010 at 02:17 AM in Ramblings, MindTouch | 1 Comments

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Comment posted on January 19th, 2010 at 11:27 AM
pretty interesting sir. a concept i haven't though through before.