The “Best-of-Breed” Myth

By Richard Hughes on December 02, 2010

Social business networks should provide developers with an open, holistic platform to integrate any number of useful tools.

In BroadVision’s 17 years as an enterprise web application vendor, there have been two recurring questions that many of our customers have asked themselves.

• “Build or buy?”

• “Integrated suite or point solutions?”

The first of these, whether to create a custom solution with an internal development team is one that, thankfully, has little relevance to social business applications; we have yet to hear of an IT department advocating the creation of their own proprietary social network.

However, the second question lingers. Should organisations buy an integrated suite covering all their functional requirements, or a collection of point solutions, each perceived as “best of breed” in its own, narrowly defined, scope? I have heard many respected thought leaders advocate the latter approach. We disagree.

BroadVision have always passionately believed that an integrated suite is the best approach, first with our eCommerce and Portal solutions, and now with Clearvale, our enterprise social networking suite.

We do understand why the best of breed approach may initially seem appealing. It gives companies the perception they have the best of every world. So in the social business world, that might mean taking Yammer’s microblogging, Atlassian’s Wiki,’s document sharing, and integrating them all together.

But the reality is that the result is far less than the sum of the parts. The integration is costly to perform and maintain, and the user experience is compromised, because standards allowing the point solutions to work together seamlessly simply don’t exist.

A suite, on the other hand, is more than the sum of its parts. Maybe it doesn’t have the top-rated solution for each individual functional point – this is perhaps inevitable when looking for a broad overall solution rather than a single functional capability. But it does result in a collection of features that are designed to work together. A few functional compromises result in a better overall experience.

Therefore we do not believe that the point solutions we see today will continue to exist in isolation; they will either be expanded or acquired into large suites.

Critics of integrates suites argue that they always lead to “bloatware”, where more and more features are forced into the suite in a bid to become all things to all men. A suite only becomes bloatware when it starts including features that only appeal to a minority of users. Despite Apple’s unquestionable prowess in user experience, iTunes is probably the most prominent example of bloatware at the moment. A lot of users just want a good music player, separate from the management of iOS devices, apps, books, etc. But if you have an iPad and an iPhone, buy your music and books from the iTunes store, you might like having everything all in one application. The challenge with a suite is knowing where to draw the line.

In the world of social business, the biggest question this leads to is whether the enterprise social network and intranet should form part of the same suite. Intellectually, yes, perhaps it should. But from a practical point of view that means either discarding the investment you’ve made in your intranet in favour of a new social intranet, or taking the social functionality provided by your existing intranet. Neither is appealing, although Microsoft & Lotus will obviously want to push companies towards the latter. But these intranets are fundamentally content- and process-centric, whereas social suites need to be people-centric. So merely extending your intranet compromises your social implementation.

Right now, we don’t believe that the social business network and the intranet belong in the same suite. Over time this may change, but for the moment, they need to coexist, and the social business suite needs to be open enough to allow this.

However, it would be unforgivably arrogant for any vendor to suggest that they can deliver all the social business functionality that any organisation will need in a single suite. Therefore, any suite needs to enable extension through the creation of additional functionality that individual businesses need. The immense success of Facebook’s developer platform has demonstrated that development from outside a network provider’s own team can dramatically increase the value of the platform because of the additional time, inspiration and ingenuity that motivated independent developers can deliver.

This idea is really only starting to emerge in social business networks. The only meaningful standard in social network development platforms, OpenSocial, is yet to be proven in a business context. It may yet establish itself here, or may be surpassed by some other framework yet to emerge.

In the meantime, social business suites need to provide the wide range of social features in a coherent user experience, and remain open to extension as standards gain acceptance.