Web 2.0 and IT


Legacy systems are not socially adaptive
May 5th, 2010 ·
Author: Mark McDonald

Business executives, technologists, academics and journalists marvel at the emerging power of social technologies aka Web 2.0. They see developments in social media as transformational, ushering in a new type of computing – social computing. The ability to connect, build common cause, inform, organize and engage people using these technologies definitely accelerates the range, richness and reach of human interaction – the essence of business.

Social computing is at its most revolutionary when you compare it to current computing technologies. For the simple reason that:

Legacy systems are not socially adaptive …

… and they never will be.

IT systems were never intended to be social. They are organized around accounting for impersonal transactions. Transactions are reflections of business activity not the activity itself. Transaction systems give executives a view similar to Socrates description of the man trying to know the world by watching shifting shadows as the back of a cave. Those reflections are representative of reality to the same extent that transactions reflect social realities.

You can dispute this point by calling out the plethora of transaction systems and the very nature of the global economy and you would have a point. Modern mass-market business rests on requiring customers to transact on our terms, time, place and price. However, the modern mass market business is becoming a post modern micro/multi-polar markets driven more by the pull of social forces than the push from corporate marketing.

It is more accurate to describe the situation this way:

Current IT systems are socially inept.

Being socially inept explains much of the deep-seated issues facing the IT industry and its professionals. If you think deeply about the major issues in IT: business relevance, business impact measurement, the business and IT relationship, etc. you can see social ineptness as one of their root causes.

Can transaction systems ever become socially adaptive?

In my opinion, NO and you do not want them to be.

While transactions are not socially adaptive they do not need to be. Transactions sit at the heart of every exchange they are the basis for social and economic activity. Remember some of the earliest forms of writing were receipts and records of business transactions written in cuneiform. Keeping track, which is what transaction systems do, will not go away. In fact it will need to get faster, more accurate, economically and automated.

Transaction systems should stay focused on what they do best – accounting for transactions. Here is a simple social analogy. Who do you trust more, an accountant who is the life of the party or one who you wince at thinking of inviting?

What does this mean for IT?

CIOs and IT organizations cannot hope to deliver socially adaptive solutions by simply extending the current approaches and attitudes. I have seen the result of such an approach in corporate IT implementations of SharePoint or other social computing tools that recreate prior intranet or Lotus Notes implementation. This is old wine in new bottles.

Building socially adaptive systems requires parallel approaches that do not remove the need for transaction technology. Coexistence and combination rather than collaboration and interaction would be a prudent view of social and transaction technologies.

The differences between social and transactional technology are powerful and subtle enough to for people to try to blend them together. Tacking Facebook onto your ERP, or adding twitter/instant messaging does not meet the requirements of a socially adaptive system.

Business executives and technologies who recognize that legacy systems are not socially adaptive have a deeper understanding of business. They accept that transactions and social interactions are two different things. They are able to get ahead of the game by matching social systems with social technologies rather trying to retro fit what they have to be more socially adaptive and acceptable. Retrofitting is an action that seems to be the definition of putting lipstick on a pig. Rather executives who understand the social nature of business accept the division of labor leaving transaction systems to transact and social systems to interact.

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Srinidhi Boray

Good article making a nice point. Transactional systems are very business centric, especially with regards to back-office operations. And, are not to be generically socially adaptive, although will allow specific business transaction to be socially adaptive, such as ebay, amazon, B2B exchange etc.

In the supply chain both on sell side and buy side there are B2B integration, and an opportunity for social interactions – but these are driven by strict business rules.

Gary Berg-Cross

This is an interesting topic and I agree that the legacy systems we see were not designed for the type of social interaction. I can vaguely imagine y a future which has a different architecture than Mark’s parallel/non-inrteractive approach:

>Building socially adaptive systems requires parallel approaches that do not remove the need for >transaction technology. Coexistence and combination rather than collaboration and interaction >would be a prudent view of social and transaction technologies.

In the data warehouse and data mart world, for example, one did not get rid of transaction systems but instead used them as sources for the marts where there were analytical tools for users. So there was an overall architecture that included the new IT and the old. I can imagine that there would be an architecture that allowed people in companies/goverment to have “social interactions” while querying more traditional data that may be the subject of a part of the interaction.