People Oriented Architecture

Henry Ford invented what? The automobile? Nope. Oh yeah, the assembly line? Nope. What Ford *did* do was something more profound: he and his team discovered radical processes that could be brought to automobile production and dramatically lower costs, increase efficiency and raise quality. He didn’t invent the assembly line, he just mapped it on to automobile making in startlingly new ways and mass production was born.

Before Ford’s breakthrough, all automobiles were assembled in one spot, with all parts and people coming to it vs. the radical departure of having the auto move along an assembly line where parts and people were efficiently placed and able to assemble it dynamically.

This assembly line paradigm wasn’t new. Eli Whitney’s cotton gin manufacturing employed these principles as did the meat processing industry. One of Ford’s key managers visited a Chicago meat processing plant where he saw the dis-assembly of cows moving along a conveyor belt and had an “Aha!” moment where he realized that a reversed process could assemble goods.

All of this was brought back to Ford who’d been seeking better ways of producing cars and had a vision for consumerism. His next breakthrough of raising wages to $5 enabled his own production workers to actually afford the cars they were making.

In the enterprise world, today’s information technology architecture is all about running the business more efficiently and competitively. Cycle time reduction, business process and workflow, enterprise resource planning, analytics, are but a few of the buzz phrases that define the categories targeted.

Where do people fit in today’s IT architecture’s other than acting as production workers on a knowledge assembly line?  What is the breakthrough analog to today’s business and I.T. architectures that will rival Ford’s profound application of mass production?

Unleashing people. Exactly how is the breakthrough and I don’t have a magic bullet to hand you…but little glimmers of possibility are becoming known.

Most thought leading executives acknowledge that their company’s most valuable assets walk out the door every night and there is a growing recognition that unleashing the collective intelligence of those assets could be a huge competitive advantage…but the architecture has to change.

For several years, the concept of a Service Oriented Architecture (SOA) has been the direction most enterprises have taken. IBM describes SOA as, “Service-Oriented Architecture (SOA) is an IT architectural style that
supports the transformation of your business into a set of linked services, or repeatable business tasks, that can be accessed when needed over a network.

The key here is that SOA approaches are primarily machine-to-machine architectures that focus on identifying and streamlining processes and information delivery while Web 2.0 creates what I like to think of as a People Oriented Architecture (POA) that enhances and accelerates gaining of knowledge, builds upon a collective sharing and shaping of that knowledge while facilitating human connection that sparks innovation. You can’t have one without the other…but I argue that you need both and for most companies people are an afterthought in IT.

When I was at Vignette for four years during the dotcom boom/bust, a key part of our value proposition was personalization. Delivering pieces of relevant content to a Web user not known as an observation program would observe clickstream data and — based on business rules — would deliver what a business analyst had surmised might be what the user could be interested in. If we knew them explicitly (i.e., they logged in) then we’d know enough to delivery highly targeted content at them.

Net Perceptions (now out of business more here) was a company that had a recommendation engine. Amazon was a customer (but since has developed their own I think) that let’s them have cross-linkages so that when you search on something it shows that “People who like this book liked these” and cross-sells and upsells automatically.

This personalization was key…but Web 2.0 has sort of turned it on its head. Instead of some data jockey deciding for a user what they might want…the user gets to decide by making choices (which is at the the heart of personal start pages and most of what Yahoo, Google, Microsoft and others are delivering). The social networks (MySpace, Facebook, YFly) provided essentially a clean slate for people to make their own by providing a social platform that they could customize. This “personalizing my personalization” is at the heart of a POA.

Here’s the amusing thing: if you talk to anyone who has developed a Web application, platform or delivered their functionality to be consumed by other application creators, they always chuckle and say stuff like, “We had NO idea that people would do _______.”  Some of that stuff is abusive, wildly creative, interesting and intriguing, but it’s because people have been enabled and empowered to unleash their own creative selves.

There is a growing recognition that a POA can compliment or at least cause a rethinking of how enterprise organizations engage employees, customers and other constituents over the Web. What happens when smart people around a topic you care about cluster because they can? As they discuss, debate, create and have new ideas, isn’t that where the leaps in innovation come from? What if you can allow your product development people to run trial balloons by blogging about it? (Don’t laugh…IBM has empowered all 320,000 employees to blog and just these sorts of uses are why).

In the Web 2.0 world, applications are built with people as the integral pivot point of the application. As we participate populating the application — and applications talk to other applications over the ‘net or we are interacting with them through our
input — people give them significantly more value as a result (see the network effect). It’s what all the buzz is about with social networking. YouTube wouldn’t be much if only 50,000 or 100,000 people were viewing, heh?

The point is that companies ARE adopting POA’s and they ARE unleashing the collective intelligence (for more on this topic, read Wikinomics, Wealth of Networks). Imagine that assembly line approaches had been quickly adopted with the 300 other automobile companies that existed when Ford started his company — because people within these other organizations were connected and could understand what was occurring as Ford crafted this strategy. How many of these producers would still exist? Would Ford have sold his 15+ million Model T’s…or would these numbers have been spread across multiple manufacturer’s…or would automobile adoption have occurred at a faster rate?

Blogs, podcasts, vlogs, wiki’s, social networks are just a few of the already proven manifestations of a POA that can be adopted immediately. Open source and commercial versions of them all exist and there are enough people in every organization to make them a reality and an effective tool as companies unleash their own collective intelligence.

Over the next few weeks I’ll be exploring topics around this POA concept and why this could be the most meaningful direction yet for the enterprise.


  1. Lee White on April 24, 2007 at 12:32 pm

    I really like the term POA. Aligns nicely with some thinking I have been doing recently. Having people at the center of information delivery completes the part of the “knowledge management” puzzle that was missing.

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About Steve Borsch

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Podcasting hit the mainstream in July of 2005 when Apple added podcast show support within iTunes. I'd seen this coming so started podcasting in May of 2005 and kept going until August of 2007. Unfortunately was never 'discovered' by national broadcasters, but made a delightfully large number of connections with people all over the world because of these shows. Click here to view the archive of my podcast posts.