Sunday, February 25, 2001 by Dave Winer.
I got a lot of email on my last very brief piece, it was written quickly and left a lot of room for imagination, new information, and pushback. That's cool. To one correspondent I said that this is just thinking out loud, kind of like brainstorming, I don't mind if an idea is half-baked before I present it. Some of the best things that have ever happened in my life came from just such idea-sharing.
Yesterday I spent a bunch of time talking with Robert Scoble, a conference manager at Fawcette, who's very bright and trying to figure out what's going on here, same as me.
One of the questions that keeps coming up is why (or is) what we're doing at UserLand different from the other content management companies, Vignette, ATG, Interwoven, Broadvision. Clearly it is different, if for no other reason that our software costs much less. But that's just the beginning of the story.
One of the elusive features that others provide that we don't is called "workflow." I wonder why we never implemented it and they did. I wonder why it never showed up on my radar, yet it seems so central to what they do. And then I had an aha. What follows is strong, so don't read it if you can't stand a strong point of view.
The purpose of workflow is to keep content off the web. To provide a sense of security to company management that all the right people have to approve something before anyone outside the company can read it. This can include relatively harmless checks, like making sure that Web standards are respected, or it can make sure that the company's lies are preserved, that no truth leaks out from behind the firewall. If every statement has to get through the legal department, top management, human resources, etc, so the theory goes, our company or organization can't get in trouble.
Now I understand why it's not in our software. Our job is to make it *easy* for people to get their ideas on to the Web, not hard. If you have layers of editors in your way, I know that this starts warping your personality, to the point where the work becomes tedious even demoralizing. I said a few weeks ago (on Scripting News, my weblog) that the Web these guys are writing for is not the same Web I write for, the one I write for depends on people's judgment and recognizes that companies are made up of people, and sometimes people make mistakes. That's preferable, imho, to a story that either never gets told or is told untruthfully.
Last week one of my people said something to someone outside the company that made me cringe. I explained to him carefully why I don't want us to say things that way. It could be big trouble. But I didn't put a gag on him. I know he cares, and I know he does good work, and that's one of the risks you take by giving your people a voice.
I remember when Brent Simmons launched his weblog, after much prodding from me. I freaked out. "Now I'm not the only public voice of my company on the Web." But I had a little talk with myself "Dave, you wanted him to do this," I said. The initial shock is long gone, and now I can't imagine a Web without Brent. He's a fantastic teacher, a great writer, as long as he wants to write publicly, I want to read it, and I want everyone who wants to to be able to.
So the bottom-line is that we are different because our natural customers are the people inside an organization, and the content management products are sold to management. Our purpose is to flow stuff out to the Web, and honestly, from my point of view, the other guys' purpose is to *not* flow stuff out to the Web. There's more money in their business, because the management has more money, but there's more Web in our business.
Over and over I learn that the barriers we erected in the past that define workplaces don't work when the Web comes into the equation. We're not the only ones. You can route around content firewalls by starting an eGroup and inviting all interested people outside your company to participate. Instant messaging and email are also route-arounds.
So workflow is an illusion, like those silly non-disclosure agreements that firewalls attach to the end of outgoing (public) emails. The Web is revolutionary, it's hard to sell security with integrity when there's a revolution (still) going on.