Our graphic contrasting explicit software versus emergent software attracted quite a bit of interest. Since we got your attention, I thought I’d talk about the contrast between process-centric versus outcome-oriented software a little more.
It seems to me that there are two kinds of thinking taking place in most work environments: process thinking and outcome thinking. People who subscribe to the process model tend to favor rules. They care about establishing and following effective, repeatable methods for conducting work activities. They feel that if you structure the work properly, you’ll get consistent, high quality results. There’s good evidence they’re right. After all, process-centric approaches have revolutionized manufacturing and logistics.
People who tend toward outcome thinking feel that results should speak for themselves. (Sausage is tasty, but you wouldn’t want to see it made.) They care about speed, flexibility and responsiveness. There’s good arguments to be made that a results-oriented approach can improve customer service dramatically. Nordstrom’s famously asks its sales associates to follow just one rule: “Use your good judgment in all situations.” Most of the entertainment industry subscribes to an outcome approach.
In most industries, both attitudes are present.
As an example, a long time ago, I worked as a junior clerk for the Australian Defence Force. I was given the important task of faxing purchase orders to various companies at the end of every day. One Friday, while faxing orders out, I noticed that one of them was wrong – by a significant amount. So, I went to my computer, and printed a new order, this time with the correct amount. But, it was late in the afternoon, and there was nobody around with the purchasing authority to sign off on the revised, correct order. In fact, there was nearly nobody around at all.
I knew I wasn’t allowed to sign a purchase order. But, being an outcome based guy, I decided not to let that stop me. I simply cut out my boss’s signature from the previous incorrect order, glued it into the “Authorized by” space, and faxed it off. After all, it was a fax, right? Nobody at the other end would know the difference. The outcome was achieved, and I went home feeling quite proud of myself.
Needless to say, when I got back to work the next day, and told my boss what had happened, I was in a lot of trouble. There was a lot of stern talking to me about things like “Standard Operating Procedures” and “Protocol”, and “Fraud”, and things like that. It turned out that my outcome based approach to solving the problem wasn’t very popular with senior management. I couldn’t understand why they were so upset. I had saved the department lots of money and time, and yet they were mad at me. They wanted me to follow the process.
Process based thinking is where Enterprise Software of old was born, and where it grew up. Computers can be taught to follow a process — it’s something that they do very well. Today’s workflow solutions, for example, mostly take their cues from assembly line automation.
You can’t automate social interaction, however. (Though Miss Manners has tried.) There are no blueprints for innovation, and “creative process” is something of an oxymoron. Social software is outcome focused. It empowers and connects people with the ability to get things done — however they like.
People are innately familiar with both of these ways of working. However, until now, Information workers have been largely bound to formal processes. The groundswell towards social software in the enterprise stems from the realization that computing devices (PCs, PDAs, Cell Phones) are as much communications devices as they are calculating machines.