Thursday, May 05, 2005

Solution-Speak

Tim Bray (Sun Microsystems) resumes his campaign against the abuse of the word Solution. He is supported by Kevin Briody and David Parmet. But as Larry Borsato rightly insists, Products Don't Solve My Problem.

I think this is a difficult issue. I agree that Solution is a widely abused word, but it is also a word we find valuable in describing some aspects of service-oriented architecture (SOA).

Firstly, I think it's reasonable for technology companies to pay attention to the solution aspects of their product range as well as the product/technology aspects. Many technologists need frequent reminders that they should be thinking about solutions to customer problems, rather than technology for its own sake. I have worked in technology companies where we have had regular exhortations of this kind, as if the rhetoric alone would effect some kind of culture change.

But this reframe is often merely superficial political correctness - verbal rather than real. Just as people can learn to replace the word "Problem" with the word "Opportunity" but without learning any real change in their behaviour or attitude; so technologists simply learn that it is better to refer to their products as solutions, but they don't really understand that it makes any difference.

There is an important difference between a technology company striving to produce solutions (which is fine), and it announcing that this is what it has achieved (which possibly isn't). Who has the right to say that something is a solution, apart from the person who owns the requirement? (The vendor only has this right under certain highly-constrained conditions.)

The best restaurants serve excellent food, but they don't put "delicious steak" on the menu. The restaurant menu should just say "steak" and the customer or restaurant critic is left free to add appropriate adjectives.

Thus when a technology company boasts that its products are solutions, this can usually be discounted by experienced customers, who may interpret this use of the word "Solution" as equivalent to "Product". In other words, they can treat assertions of solution-status as empty and ungrounded. It is easy to find and ridicule such uses of the "Solution" word.

But that doesn't imply that solution-status is always empty and ungrounded. Instead we must ask: is there a meaningful difference between product and solution, and how can such a difference be grounded? This is essentially a question of the second asymmetry.

three asymmetries of demand . People who can meaningfully assert the product/solution split are essentially instantiating the second asymmetry.
. People who deprecate the product/solution split (such as Tim Bray) are either denying the second asymmetry altogether, or denying that a given use of the word "solution" represents an authentic instance of the second asymmetry.
. Meanwhile, the product/solution split does not do anything for the first or third asymmetry. So the "solution" word is insufficient for other aspects of asymmetry.

Coda - Microsoft

Here is evidence that Microsoft understands the first two asymmetries.

"Microsoft's Customer Care Framework (CCF) is a modular XML Web Services architecture for rapid development and deployment of contact center solutions."

In other words, it is not a solution, it is an architecture for producing solutions.

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