Map 1: Structure of Online Systems
This first cognitive map, “The Structure of Online Systems,” describes what we work on—what our services apply to. It organizes the many parts of an online system into a useful scheme. It also clarifies the terminology for these parts, which is otherwise subject to many misinterpretations.
Explanation of Elements in This Map
- Platform: On the company side, this includes servers, other hardware, systems software, middleware, etc. On the user side, it includes desktop/laptop PC’s and mobile devices (presently mainly phones and hand-helds), plus their systems software, middleware, etc. All of this, taken as a whole, can be called the platform for the online system. We stay up on the latest advances in technology for platforms, but do not offer services for the platforms themselves.
- Connectivity: This is what distinguishes an online system from an offline system. It includes all the hardware and software on the company side and the user side that connects the user platform to the company’s platform. The most common types of connectivity are the Internet and its World Wide Web, plus companys’ local/wide area networks. We stay up on the latest advances in technology for connectivity, but do not offer services for connectivity hardware or software itself.
- Frames: Websites can usefully be thought of as frames for their content (see below). It is often very clarifying to distinguish the website itself from the various types of elements it contains. In many cases, content occurs within websites, but in many other cases, no websites are involved. For example, an application on a mobile device connects directly to a company’s LAN, with no browser running on the mobile device and no company website involved at all. In such cases, we just say there is no frame for the content. Many of our services apply to websites and their content; our other services apply to content without a frame.
- Content: This is the meat of any online system. It is what the system is for and what it does. The rest of the system is there merely to support the content. Content is often confused with websites (its frame), which can lead to problems. Content can usefully be broken down into four categories:
- Products/Applications: From the perspective of the company who develops and owns this type of content, it is thought of as a product. From the perspective of its customers/users, it is thought of as an application, information, or a combination of both. There are two distinct types of users of products/applications:
- Customers: products/applications for customers, usually for sale, tend to be software forms of company products or services, whether there was or is a non-software form as well. Customers think of these as applications, not products. Our Product Innovation services are specifically designed to create or improve these products.
- Staff: tools, utilities, or information used by company staff from various departments. Staff think of these as applications or information, not products. Because applications and information for staff are for the sake of the aims of their departments, rather than products for sale to customers, applications for them must be designed differently than products for sale. Because their purposes are different, the processes of considering their business benefits. users’ aims, and alternatives must be different. We offer services directly targeted at this type of application.
- Virtualized Business-Functions (VBFs): This is usually the main type of content on companys’ websites. This content is best thought of as a virtualization of a function that is or can be performed by people in the company.
- For Customers: VBFs for customers are virtualizations of a company’s line departments, to supplement or replace some or all of the functions of the marketing, sales, shipping, or customer-support departments. While companies think of these VBFs as marketing, sales, shipping, or support, customers think of them as shopping, buying, delivery, and help. It is helpful to keep these two perspectives separate and clear.
- For Staff: VBFs for company staff are virtualizations of a company’s staff departments, to supplement or replace some or all of the functions of the R&D, Planning, Procurement, Accounting, IT, or HR departments.
- Communication Functions: As more and more communication technologies and capabilities of various media become available and are enhanced, websites and online products are increasingly taking advantage of and relying on communication functions to appeal to and increase their usefulness to users. Such functionality is playing a greater and greater role in providing competitive advantages to websites and online products. Communication functions can usefully be broken down into two types:
- For Interpersonal Communication: such as phones, pagers, chat, email, text messaging, and instant messaging.
- For Intra-Group Communication: such as conferencing, chat, forums, wikis, blogs, feeds, notifications, and surveys.
- Connective Elements: This type of content includes everything else—everything not in any of the previous three categories of content. Its function is usually to explain, connect, and provide access to the other types of content. It includes such things as a home page, navigation (maps, means, search tools, etc.), headers, footers, legal notices, contact information, and other information about the website or its content generally.