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The social networking phenomenon (also called as “Web 2.0” sometimes) is much more firmly established in the industry by now. In 2010, I don’t think there will be many debates around the value of social networking. Instead, we might come across more and more instances of how the various aspects of our professional and personal lives are absorbing the social networking trends, either forcibly or proactively!

As a Standard Architect for technology standards, I wonder whether and how the social networking trends are impacting the dynamics, processes or anything else related to the development of open standards.

I think the impact of social networking trends on any area is generally at the following two levels:

  • Enhance the existing processes by leveraging the benefits offered by social networking tools – for example, an organization may deploy social networking tools to collaboratively discuss and address problems with its business processes and thus enhance the operational efficiency of the processes.
  • Fundamentally change the process models by bringing into picture entirely new set of possibilities – for example, an organization may use social networking to collaboratively develop and manage business processes spanning multiple internal departments as well as partners and customers in real time, as demonstrated by the Enjoy NetWeaver BPM – Part 2: A Gravity Wave Comes to Galaxy.

When it comes to standards, the above concept maps to – a> adoption of social networking tools to improve the specification development processes, and b> entirely new definition of what standards mean and how they are developed.

The requirements and motivations of most standards (at least in the software technology area) are driven by a handful of key vendors and their customers (usually represented by the vendors) who collaborate and often times diplomatically negotiate with each other the content of the specifications.  Development of such standard specifications is typically a complex (often times boring and esoteric for the uninitiated!) activity carried out by a bunch of subject matter experts who have a tremendous passion and insistence on the use of very precise, razor-sharp specification language for capturing the intended semantics (that is generally favorable to their respective customers and solution strategies).

Such standard specifications although contain fairly terse language that is friendlier to machines than humans, the experts developing the standards are at the end of the day human beings! Like most of us, they also bear an appreciation for the efficiencies of collaboration, etc, enabled by the social networking tools.

 

Social networking tools are fast infiltrating our personal lives and slowly transforming our interaction habits whereby we have started to simply expect their adoption in our professional settings as well. Standards committee processes are also no exception to this influx of improved collaboration styles triggered by the social networking phenomenon!

A simple example is – the use of an online webconf tool along with the traditional phone calls by the technical committees under the OASIS standard body, which I personally work a lot of with. The online webconf tool makes it possible for the committee members to collectively wordsmith decisions, manage the queue of speakers and allows for multiple side conversations (which often times add the much needed humor to the drudgery of the specification work).  Such collaboration tools could potentially also be used for capturing attendance, conducting automated ballots, straw polls, etc.  OASIS member tools also provide a wiki tool for informal collaboration by the committees. In a nutshell, the standards community has been adopting the social networking tools for improving collaboration, etc, but I also think that these tools are not a game changer for the overall standards model as such!

There is however a relatively new scenario where standards are being developed in an entirely different manner. This scenario pertains to the open marketplaces where large number of community members develop and sell relatively small, point applications aimed at one more ubiquitous platform deployed on the Internet e.g. developers of Google gadgets, mobile applications, etc. In this case, typically the organizations maintaining the platform technology and its deployed instances have far less interest in standardizing and controlling the technology than fostering the adoption of the platform by letting the developer community take control and define the technology (to some extent of course). It is in the context of these scenarios that I see the new models of developing standards where the entire lifecycle of the specifications is carried out in public with the direct involvement of the community members. Essentially, in these settings, social networking is at the very core of the business model and acts as a game changer for everything related to it, including development of the standards.

Consider the example of the OpenSocial project which defines the API for various social networking sites to share the social data they hold with each other and also with other social networking based applications. Currently, it has over 16,000 members and the site lists over 20,000 applications that are built using the OpenSocial API. It should then not come as a surprise that the OpenSocial specification development process is also designed as a community project and allows the community members to submit new requirements, make concrete proposals for specification updates, provide implementations to prove the feasibility of the proposals and finalize the specifications. Their decision making process is also very community oriented – for example, new proposals require 5 positive votes and no negative votes! In essence, the standards model here is dramatically different compared with its traditional model.

Another interesting aspect of the OpenSocial like scenarios is their tighter integration of the standards development process with the source code control systems, since typically it is the same target platform(s) that the various developers are building their applications against. This is an aspect where even the traditional standards community is slowing catching up. For example, consider the Service Component Architecture standards which are aimed at standardizing the design and assembly of composite applications in heterogeneous IT environment.  Unlike most OASIS committees, SCA standard are chartered to develop test assertions and test cases in addition to the specification documents. Keeping the different specifications in synch, tracking the relationship of a specification with its test assertions, and test cases, etc, requires a whole lot of collaborative development infrastructure that is typically common to open source projects and is a new territory for standards body like OASIS. The traditional standards world can be expected to borrow some experiences and tools from the open source community here.

In a nutshell, like most other fields, social networking tools are finding their way into the traditional standards world and at the same time social networking trends are also fostering some fundamentally different models of driving standard specifications. Whether the latter phenomenon will grow strong over the coming time period and will become the predominant model for development of standards in general is yet to be seen as it would depend upon not just the advantage of better tooling but largely also upon whether social networking will change the basic business drivers for why standards are created in the first place.

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