Generalists or Specialists?

14 October, 2008

Over the past twelve months we have kicked off quite a few initiatives to dip our toes in the murky waters of web2.0. As these have all been largely experiments we’ve gone with WordPress for blogs, Ning for our community and SocialText for our wiki. Each were selected as they had the best price, feature set and fit for our purpose. Now as we hurtle toward the end of the year we begin to think about what our suite of social products will look like in 2009.

One of the many questions we need to answer when figuring this out is what technology platform will out products sit on, and to get to the point of this post do we continue with individual products that are good at a particular task but not connected to other items or do we go with someone who can give us the whole box and dice.

Certainly a generalist platform is appealing when thinking about user management and data security, it also could enhance the usability of our offer if all applications function in kinda the same way. On the specialist product side you can argue that by selecting a product for a specific need you can find the right product for your project and avoid hitting square pegs into round holes.

If we’re thinking whole box and dice there are a couple of options that I can think of. SocialText recently launched version 3 of their wiki platform and on paper it’s a pretty nice set up. Their well established wiki/blog tools, combined with an iGoogle style dashboard and social networking capabilities, integrates the majority of your social software offer into one box. Throw in their recently announced signals module and SocialCalc and as far as enterprise social software goes it is a pretty compelling case. On the downside their wiki has a few quirks that sometimes make it a little difficult for new users to come to grips with, the blogging tools are not as good as WordPress or Typepad and I’m not sure if it has discussion forum capabilities.

The other box and dice platform I know of is Sharepoint. yes it is from the evil empire (not google, the other evil empire) and yes it can become ungainly and difficult to manage but from what I have been told it can do most of your social stuff if you make it. I must admit I really don’t know much about share point other than it seems to have started many ‘is Sharepoint social’ discussions on the interwebs.

So to you good folk who have been kind enough to stop by this tram, do you know of any other box and dice type platforms out there? Or is it better to stick with distributed specialist platforms?


5 Responses to “Generalists or Specialists?”

  1. Mick

    I’ve been down the Sharepoint path in the past – good platform, lots of widgets and libraries to get something functional up early. Works best with a full MS platform, which of course is not what you can guarantee.

    It also has the evil empire’s panache for making Really Simple Things into Stuff of Truly Machiavellian Complexity. So once you start saying things like ‘I want that bubble over there’ it starts getting annoying.

    I’d also check the market for Sharepoint developers – last time I looked they were charging like a merchant banker looking for his next Ferrari. For not much skill btw.

    Still and all, it’s a big (and classic) question, and presumably would need a whole lot of deep thinking given that you’ll want to build a community and develop content. It’s easy to go with the distributed specialists, but trying to integrate them or migrate them later will be a real PITA. You’re also looking for cross-platform synergies between your blogs and wikis (if I search, I want results across the knowledge base thanks!).

    You could look to using specialist platforms but with seamless integration (like OpenID).

    If you go with a generalist platform, of course, they tend to be expensive and not only do they not have leading edge features now, they probably won’t ever be the best at one single application. Tend to be easier to support in the long run – don’t need specialist people to support each platform, and they do allow you to collaborate and get synergy from your networked functionality – i.e. wikis know about blogs which know about social networks.

    Generalists that come to mind are essentially content management systems with plugins (e.g. DotNetNuke, Plone, PhpNuke etc) for specialist applications.

    A key feature to consider for both types is ability to move to another platform without losing the content you’ve generated.

    Have you thought about what the universities use – Blackboard? I suspect it’s more expensive than my merchant banker example above – but of course if this thing is successful it needs to be scalable. Really scalable. And if it isn’t successful – well, not so good.

    I’d consider what’s the key feature you’re after (your key success factor) in your platform choice and I’d probably recommend you go with a generalist platform that is ‘best’ at that and sufficiently OK with the others to let you move forward. Yes it opens up one set of nightmares but it closes off a whole bunch of others.

    I’d also consider selecting an interim platform that’s there for two or three years while you prove the concept and then migrate to your more permanent solution at that time. Rather than spending $2m on Blackboard initially with low initial uptake – spread the risk.

    Of course the problem with that plan is that the longer you leave it the harder it is to migrate with minimal impact to your community.

    It’s probably just as valid going down the specialist path, and you’d need to consider seriously the advantages for your specific business between the two.

    My thoughts for what they’re worth.

    Thanks: Micheal Axelsen

  2. Hi Mick,

    Michael makes some good points, particularly about single sign-on, preservation of data and synergy about tools.

    I’m new on your blog and don’t know who you work for, but the other thing you will want to consider is the size of your business and what Knowledge barriers you are trying to overcome with the solution. SME’s (companies with less than 250 employees) can sometimes benefit more from certain types of tools depending on things like industry, geographical dispersion, high-growth/high-tech.

    This is pretty obvious, but often the whitepapers and stated benefits for tools are focused on the big end of town and don’t always play out as expected.

    Years ago I was a survival teacher in the Air Training Corps. We used to joke about two types of soldier. Once who carries an all-round 7″ bowie knife and the other who carries a pen-knife and a hatchet. After a while I realised each had its benefits. I think a similar thing is happening in the Ent 2.0 space. Both options a viable for different requirements, and even the generalists are starting to realise this and play a more cooperative role, such as Sharepoint allowing a Confluence wiki plug-in.

    As somebody tweeted the other day, anybody actually rolling our Ent 2.0 right now is ahead of the pack. I’m looking forward to seeing where this all goes over the next 2-3 years.

  3. Mick Leyden Says:

    @Michael and @Stuart,

    Thanks very much for the thoughts, I will read through all of that again to let it sink in! It seems for every pro or con on one there is an equally important pro or con on the other.

    I think in the end it will come down to really clearly defining our objectives and looking at all options. It seems there is no definitive ‘best’ approach. As Stuart says all of this is still too new!

  4. Katich Says:

    Hi Michael,
    congratulation for that makes some good points, particularly about single sign-on, preservation of data and synergy about tools.

  5. […] be upfront! I logged in this morning to find this gem in the comments on my post from yesterday. Hi Michael, congratulation for that makes some good points, particularly about […]

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