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Lotus Notes Management Theory

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Washington Post business columnist Steven Pearlstein this week touched on the topic of a "Systems Approach" to management. In his column entitled "Top-Down, Bottom-Up, but What About the Middle?" he highlights a conflict that I believe is especially relevant to the Lotus Notes Community. If you're not familiar with the term "systems approach", Pearlstein sums it up thusly:

"This focus on systems is, by its nature, reflective of a top-down, command-and-control approach to management. It runs counter to another strain in modern management theory, which holds that the best-run companies push authority and responsibility further down in their organizations."

Lotus Notes is in many ways antithetical to top-down systems management, since it enables the creation of applications that empower knowledge workers to use their judgement to make decisions and get things done. One of Notes' great strengths is that even an untrained novice can build a simple application that has a big impact on the way a business operates. But in the rush to add more cool functionality that often follows, this lack of experience can show as the application becomes more complex and harder to maintain.

I happen to be a firm believer in the value of giving line-of-business workers (i.e. non-geeks) tools to tap their creativity, and making it relatively easy for them to build their own Notes databases is one way to do so. However, doing so without some hand-holding and cooperation from the IT folks will only end badly, most likely with the imposition of restrictive policies that essentially shut the practice down.

So the trick is striking the right balance between these two opposing tendencies, but the first step is simply recognizing 1) that it IS possible, and 2) that the payoff is worth the effort. Any overall strategy aimed at achieving this goal should certainly start with hiring a strong team of Notes/Domino professionals (possibly as few as 1-2 people) with excellent business communication skills. These are the folks that will be able to build a well-designed and stable Domino infrastructure upon which a wide range of applications can be built. These are the folks who can give their creative but inexperienced colleagues on the business side the tools and guidance they need to make the business run better, which after all is what IT is supposed to be all about.

Good Topic for a Lotusphere Session?

I happen to have given this subject considerable thought, and even submitted a Lotusphere abstract for a session on developing "a simple yet powerful standard database architecture that will give the ambitious beginner a better starting point for their development, helping them to build quality applications that adhere to many Notes best practices. By making good design approachable in this way, common mistakes can be avoided and it becomes much easier for senior developers to extend the application later."

While this may sound familiar to those of you who followed the conversation a couple months back regarding the "Nifty Fifty" sample templates, the architecture I have in mind has as a design goal to be readily understood and extended by folks who may have never done any programming before, but have a reasonable aptitude for it. It would draw on much of the excellent work that the Domino Community has already done, such as the Openslice effort by Tim and Laurette Rynne, as well as my own home-grown architecture standard, but would be tailored to novice developer.

I'm curious, what do you folks think of the overall idea of giving line-of-business users fairly wide latitude to build their own apps, and of the specific idea for this standard beginner architecture to help keep the process orderly without stifling creativity? Unless somebody convinces me there's no interest, I would like to start posting design specifications on a wiki to allow everyone to contribute ideas, code, examples, etc. to support the effort.

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