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Mashups and the User

Make no mistake about it—despite the recent buzz around Enterprise 2.0, people have been creating mashups for many years. Of course, the process to this point has been overwhelmingly manual. Microsoft Excel is arguably the father of the corporate data mashup. For years, Excel end users have cut-and-pasted data to feed their calculation engines. Spreadsheet-based solutions have spread throughout the enterprise without the involvement of IT. Mashup tools enable the automation of this aggregation process, and a new clan of users is poised to run wild with the technology.

A culture of individualism is clearly emerging in today's world. People no longer plan their evenings around what TV networks schedule for them to watch, for example. Instead, they record their favorite shows onto digital video recorders (DVRs) or watch movies and shows on their computers and mobile devices. Similarly, the recording industry no longer has a stranglehold over music distribution. Newspaper readership is down, as more individuals choose to consult RSS feeds and blogs instead of purchasing the printed documents. People can even create personalized clothing and sneakers online.23 Members of the public have evolved from docile consumers into "prosumers."24 Products and services are moving away from mass markets and being shaped by the people who consume them. Likewise, a fundamental shift has occurred in software development. Armed with new tools and the skills to use them, users aren't waiting for IT to build solutions—they're doing it themselves.

Should organizations facilitate these individuals' efforts, or rein them in? For years, the mantra of professional software development was "Separate business logic from presentation logic." Programmers religiously structured their code around that principle but ignored the logical conclusion: The best shepherd of business expertise is not the IT department, but the business users themselves.

The inclination for IT departments to view user-led efforts in an adversarial light increases when IT experts believe that their "home turf"—application development—is threatened. IT needs the occasional reminder that in any development effort, it is the users who are the key to defining metrics for success. Besides, users are already creating mashups anyway, albeit human-powered ones.

Gartner has said mashups will make IT even more critical to business operations,25 so a knee-jerk rejection to their emergence is not necessarily in the best interests of the firm. Rather than deny business users the tools that can increase their productivity, IT needs to embrace a new model. Besides, starting with a mashup product won't get you a business solution any more than staring at a word processor will get you the next great novel.26 Because IT personnel clearly cannot scale to meet the requirements of each particular user, they should leverage the potential of mashups and work in partnership with the business associates to train a new class of self-serve builders. This effort is akin to adding hundreds of new developers at virtually no additional cost.

It's a common assumption that the latest generation of developers is intuitively suited to filling this role. Affectionately termed the "Millennials" or "Generation Y," these individuals came of age during the Internet boom of the last decade and are inherently comfortable with technology. Millennials, green with inexperience and giddy about tinkering, question everything. This behavior stands in stark contrast to that of the entrenched workforce, whose habits of working in a particular manner condition them to no longer question the "why."

Many companies are rushing to embrace Web 2.0 ideals such as mashups, social networks, wikis, and blogs not because they have inherent value, but rather because the firms think this practice will attract the "new thinkers." In reality, instead of abdicating responsibility for innovation to a younger generation or applying technology Band-Aids, firms need to cultivate an environment of creativity and collaboration for their employees regardless of their physical age. Any firm can realize the value of mashups and Enterprise 2.0 so long as its managers are capable of taking a critical look at their workplace and realizing they don't need to settle for "good enough" any more.

The "guerrilla-style" approach of mashup development is not without its drawbacks, of course. Most business users do not fully grasp the challenges in providing scalability, reliability, business continuity, disaster recovery, security, and fault tolerance. If users are permitted to develop ad hoc solutions, IT must provide an environment that cultivates these best practices.

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