Social Business Needs Standards (and that’s not an IT matter)

standardsIf your internal or external social business initiative, your enterprise social network, digital workplace, rich directory or unified collaborative environment is doing well, I don’t need big data or predictive analysis to tell you that impressive headaches are ahead. And if your current project is not doing well it may already be because of the causes of the headache.

Before, Social used to be “Standalone”. But it was before.

At the beginning things were simple. Either called social or “2.0” they used to rely on standalone products. The “new world” used to believe that it didn’t need the old one. Why getting closer to something that will collapse ? Then, business had its revenge and it became obvious that social business initiatives had to come to terms with two major matters :

1°) It’s not about replacing the existing but completing and enriching it. Bring existing content and information back to life, make it become the subject of new interactions. Hence the need for integration with legacy systems.

2°) The social part of the IS is getting more and more complex. The enterprise social network is not the only part of the game anymore : not only we saw “competing” initiatives in the workplace that raised the (poorly answered yet) question of interoperability between social networks, then socialized business applications and the convergence between internal and external facing tools. Social tools had not only to talk legacy ones but also together.

Business usually start with rich profiles that have to draw information from multiple sources, then they realize they must socialize one or two strategic business applications, and in the end they find necessary to bring all conversations in a central client, regardless to their source, and make them operable from this client (social mail, activity stream….). That’s when headaches come.

The integration inferno

The the point where IT departments meet the usual nightmare they would have loved to avoid. Integration work. At the same time essential, long-term and often ver expensive. Social Business has become a platform matter more than an application one but before the vision becomes reality we’re right on the middle of the ford. What do we lack ? A couple of things that will allow businesses to only have to develop the “last mile” between applications. Standards. They already exist but need to be improved and adopted by a critical mass of players.

There’s, of course, another solutions : enterprise app stores. But from HR systems to directories, including CRM, SSO, business applications of any kind, no enterprise use standard applications. At best a little customized, at worse they have nothing in common with the original solution. Except if one accepts to throw how the legacy systems away or keep the social environment in a small closed bubble, it will never work at scale in large businesses except if they develop their own app store. That’s the reason why businesses with heterogenous systems struggle with Saas except if they accept to lower their ambition and the scope of a project that’s in fact about reinventing the work environment.

The W3C takes things in hand.

The good news is that many people have understood that something needed to be done. The W23 organized a workshop in august from which they draw interesting conclusions. With no surprise :

At the end of the workshop, break-out groups met to discuss areas to be standardized next. Groups formed around the following topics:

  • OpenSocial and Gadgets will focus on radical simplification leveraging HTML5, moving from the XML definition of a gadget to a situation where AJAX requests are performed directly against a page. How context works with cross-origin requests and how application tags can be supported by HTML5 are the next steps.

  • ActivityStreams will focus on a new version, ActivityStreams 2.0, to increase extensibility and handle state. There was a large discussion over the role of JSON-LD as a syntax for ActivityStreams, but as ActivityStreams 2.0 does not depend on it, it was viewed as acceptable to the workshop participants.

  • Identity and Profile Federation needs to focus on a set of core attributes that show how previous work in the area (hCard and vCard in particular) can be extended with desired features such as skill-levels and certifications. It is necessary to understand how profiles federate using protocols such as Pubsubhubbub.

  • IndieWeb will focus on user experience, in particular making it much easier to use the reply button and work with browsers to make it easier to share content.

  • Property Graphs need to have their data model defined, as well as APIs and schemas. Potential cross-over work on exploiting property graphs with the OpenSocial API should be investigated.

  • Linked Data and vocabularies need to focus on how to create new kinds of vocabularies that can enable social business, such as expertise vocabularies.

There’s nothing surprising for who tries to think about social IS urbanization. We can find in a bunch : open social (interoperability matters), Activity streams (the cornerstone of unified collaborative environments), profile and identity federation that is key for cross application use cases when identity attributes and rights are scattered among many tools.

Standards are an adoption matter

That said, one should not believe that standards are an IT and vendor matter. As a matter of fact, the root cause of the need is not IT at all. One can live with siloed applications, using people as middleware. Standards are about unified user experience, end to end work and information flows, coherent use cases and tools. So it’s a matter of adoption.

Wrong standards or standards that work but meet the wrong needs won’t be an IT issue but a end user one. What is nice, shiny and challenging from an IT standpoint often have a very little value for end users, from an adoption or HR standpoint. So it’s important not to limit the work on standards to IT population but involve more people to understand the cross applications use cases that will actually make work easier.