Principles of Natural Participation
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The Big Thaw: Natural Participation in Action

A fictional corporation called Blue Walnut Realty (BWR) had a public Web site that allowed customers and business partners to connect with them at www.bluewalnuthomes.com. The Web site had a public-facing section that contained marketing material to help generate sales leads and showcase their services. In addition, the site had two secure areas that allowed home builders and home buyers to access an online application.

The customer application helped potential home buyers keep track of favorite properties that they were interested in purchasing. The secured home builders section of the Web site let builders add and update their property listings within the BWR database so that potential customers could browse and add these property listings to their favorites.

Historically, BWR had used the waterfall development method to support these applications and had released new functionality or adjustments to their Web site on a bi-yearly basis. All development efforts were handled by their development team, which met with business analysts to transform the latest business requirements into solutions.

Over time, BWR had seen their growth slow as smaller, more nimble competitors began to offer similar functionality on their Web sites and more quickly adjust to meet consumer needs.

Recognizing that their Web presence was a crucial element of their overall business strategy and that it would help them grow their business, the BWR CEO and CIO committed to investing in a more flexible Web framework and to researching ways to leapfrog their smaller competitors. To support this new business initiative, BWR also revisited their development processes and began investigating agile development methods. During their investigation, they came across the principle of natural participation in this new framework and decided they would also leverage its methodology.

The results were significant. By adopting a natural participation method of solution development, they quickly found themselves accelerating their initiatives at speeds they hadn't thought possible. With developers and business analysts collectively contributing in parallel, which was not possible earlier, the same number of resources could now produce much greater results in a shorter time span.

Within a week of moving to the new platform, a new feature was added to the Web site that allowed potential home buyers to start a discussion with BWR staff around potential homes on the same Web page where they stored their favorite listings. This added a much more personal touch to the Web site, and the potential customers were very pleased with the new functionality. The development team invested no effort on this initiative as the business analyst team used native framework tools to create the new interactivity for the prospects.

BWR also wanted to strengthen relationships with the home builders. Immediately after adding the discussion forums, the business analyst team began to weave in targeted marketing materials explaining the benefits of working exclusively through BWR alongside the application that home builders used to add and update their listings. In addition to these materials, the team created specific contact forms to allow the builders to show their interest in specific programs offered in the marketing materials.

A few more weeks down the road and using native portal tools again, the business analyst group set up individually branded logins for all of the major builders to bolster relationships with them. This required no developer assistance or regression testing from the development team as it was native framework functionality. The individually branded logins were something that none of their competitors offered, giving BWR a distinct advantage.

What about the application development staff at BWR? Throughout this entire process, the development team had been freed up to focus on more strategic technology projects. They are now preparing to release a new tool within the site that allows potential home buyers to download their favorite available properties to a GPS device that can easily guide the prospects through a tour of the properties. This is a feature that no competitors have and something that was made possible by using the time not spent updating site content, adding new interactive site elements like the discussion forums, updating site structure, building uniquely branded login areas, or deploying marketing materials for the builders.

How to Implement Natural Participation

Leveraging principles of natural participation requires coordination from a business and organizational standpoint, as well as from a technological standpoint. There is no perfect approach to its implementation, but the overall goal is to obtain benefits from a pragmatic, agile approach to development with multiple parties. Below are some key steps that will help organizations begin to embrace this ideology for projects.

  1. Secure executive sponsorship — Change is difficult. Even though many benefits exist from implementing a model of shared participation for solution development, it will take a compelling executive voice to reinforce the new strategy. In the absence of this support, people will gravitate toward the status quo where they are comfortable.
  2. Know all facets of your application framework — It is crucial to look for areas within a development framework where non-developers can contribute and manage part of a solution. This frees developers to focus on more crucial initiatives and frees the business from the bottlenecks of waiting on the completion of long release cycles to make minor adjustments to a project.
  3. Challenge the current Software Development Life Cycle (SDLC) and release management approach — Too many companies do things "because that is the way we have always done them." Step back and examine if a traditional model makes sense given the evolution of platforms and their ability to now develop more modular solutions where multiple audiences can manage different segments of a project.
  4. Explore delegation and define governance — Just because a development team may no longer code an entire solution does not mean that it has to result in a loss of control over content. Modern development platforms can provide workflow, auditing, and other methods of managing segments of a solution in a secure and controlled manner.
  5. Identify obvious candidates for delegation — Content, information structure and layout, high-level security, and workflow are just some elements that business users can manipulate within a platform. The business can focus on these portions of a project without affecting development efforts and offloading a significant amount of work from a development team.
  6. Keep all parties informed — The development and business teams should participate in regularly scheduled, brief meetings to inform each other of their project activities at a high level. This will ensure that any change in overall project direction or business requirements will have minimal impact on the work that both parties are doing and how that work is integrated between them.

Conclusion

By leveraging the principles of natural participation, it is possible to thaw enterprise application development, making the most of a portal framework and native tools that enable contribution by non-developers. Each initiative can be evaluated as to whether it makes sense to begin traditional development work for a segment of the solution, or if it is possible to involve members of the business-analyst team to paint that part of the picture. This process leads to greater business agility and allows development teams to focus on higher-value strategic tasks, while business analysts become empowered to "naturally participate" in the overall solution development and increase the business value that IT can offer to its organization.

About the Author:
John Brunswick is a Practice Manager within BEA's Business Interaction Division consulting group. He has worked with numerous Fortune 500 companies, helping them strategically accelerate their businesses through the use of enterprise portal and business process management technologies.

John Brunswick is a Practice Manager within BEA's Business Interaction Division consulting group and manages the ALUI and ALBPM practices in Canada and New England. He is passionate about technology and using it to solve business problems.