Systems, ecosystems and control (anything but the one stop shop)

The ecosystem theme seems to be echoing around me at the moment. I realise that this is not a new theme but it has given me pause to think as it orbits. Some interesting remarks from contacts on LinkedIn in a recent discussion further added to the musings. What follows are some top of mind thoughts on the topic (for now…).

There is a powerful impulse at play in IT organisations I believe – it is the urge to tidy up the apparent mess of systems and technology tools at large in the business. As a senior IT stakeholder, there is cost, stress and error at every turn and greater control feels like an obvious response. It is one powerful reason to pursue the single system strategy or the dreaded ‘one-stop-shop’. Neither the “one ring to rule them all” or the “there can be only one” approaches have ended well, however. technology progress and development will inevitably add more ‘mess’.

There is a desire for parental control at play here, I further believe. A view that the best outcomes for users are those that are managed for them (with their best interests at heart, of course). Where there is a parent, there are children, however, and that is not the role a modern workforce really wants to play. (I sincerely doubt it was a satisfactory role for any workforce but has been the tradition nonetheless). As users, we approach the digital consumer landscape as agents of choice. Having that agency removed is a pain. It is a pretty drab reality that many organisations deny the use of consumer tools in the workplace to defend the apparent order of official systems and we step back in time as we pass through the revolving doors at reception.

The LMS is one of the worst offenders in the controlling parent role, replete with allocation, access control and approvals. There are even sanctions for poor behaviour: if you don’t eat your compliance greens, you can’t have your password pudding. This is not born from an atmosphere of trust and openness.

These are not the only reasons for the flourishing of the organisational ecosystem of tools and technologies but they are significant. The ability to swiftly offer a well designed tool focused on narrow and painful use cases is chipping away at the foundations of  traditional systems in all walks of professional life. It is frequently, if not always, quicker and cheaper to use a cloud based web service for work tasks. App store marketplaces have created a very effective environment for testing and developing useful tools. Most often the tools of our every day lives are our first choice in our work, having had their value tested and honed by literally millions of users and use cases. The fact that these tools are in different products and owned by different businesses is no real barrier to their utility in our private worlds, so what is the problem in the organisation context?

It is important to distinguish a true ecosystem of from a series of available tools. If an ecosystem is “a community of interacting organisms and their environment”, then there are, I suspect, few of them out there. There are plenty of organisations with multiple tools and technologies (a development to be embraced), the interaction criterion is more difficult to satisfy though. This does not devalue the utility of the tools but it might make the usability of the ecosystem weaker as data and content does not pass between products. It is likely that meaningful interaction between systems falls into the ‘big and difficult’ project bucket and is tackled less often as a result.

One of the great liberties of avoiding the one-stop-shop, is the freedom to test and add tools as a need arises or possible value is in sight. The recent arrival of many chatbot tools on the landscape is a case in point. There are plenty of authouring tools to create bots and messaging systems to release them into. A requirement to integrate them first is likely to break a business case to create a swift test.

There are two areas, however, where integrating tools to begin the creation of an ecosystem looks most valuable:

  1. Search and discovery: the ability to quickly and simply search for specific content, people and information that are relevant to your work. This requires some engineering and careful planning but technologies like Elasticsearch and erm, Google are very accomplished at this. Being able to search and browse across content portals, social media, LMS, third-party content services, intranet, document repositories and people directories adds huge value to the tools most organisations use.

    In fact, with good search, who needs a learning journey?.

  2. Data and analysis: being able to see what users do (and don’t do) across multiple technologies is enormously valuable. This can range from simple dashboard reporting of items such as content popularity, routes in and through content, patterns of heaviest users, frequency and depth etc. to more sophisticated analysis of the relationships of certain behaviours with business outcomes. The addition of non-learning data sources is very important here, although organisationally tricky in many cases.

    For those in the learning game, the LRS is an interesting development finally gaining some momentum. For those with broader concerns, many other data storage and retrieval solutions beckon. (Data Lakes have a poetic ring too).

Tackling these two (pretty hefty) challenges will offer an ecosystem owner, or those with ambitions for one, a good steer as to the potential value in integrating the tools and products into a user experience of some kind.

There are many other hypotheses forming in my mind to which I may return. For now though, the ecosystem approach is a definite step forward. Perhaps the greatest contribution made by this approach is offering control and choice (or greater control and choice) to users rather than requiring them to seek permission and approval. This is closer to our experience as consumers – we chose the tools we prefer, when and how to use them. Choice has become a foundational expectation of our digital experience and system owners should be very cautious about interrupting it.


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