Bringing Sexyback (in the enterprise)

Robert Scoble kicked off a huge debate yesterday.

I think there are two views of Enterprise Software which are, at their core, irreconcilable.

Will there be one winner in the end? Will there be separate streams of it development and thinking in the enterprise? I’m not sure about either, but here is how I see the current environment. If you do not draw the distinction, the debate gets very murky very quickly.

#1 – Supporting Existing Structure (rule based)

The first responder in yesterdays debate was my fellow Enterprise Irregular Michael Krigsman, who writes one of my favorite blogs, IT Project Failures.

Michael said

Robert Scoble misses this point: unlike consumer software, where sex appeal is critical to attracting a commercially-viable audience, enterprise software has a different set of goals.

Enterprise software is all about helping organizations conduct their basic business in a better, more cost-effective manner. In software jargon, it’s intended to “enable core business processes” with a high degree of reliability, security, scalability, and so on. These aren’t sexy, cool attributes, but are absolutely essential to the smooth running of businesses, organizations, and governments around the world.

Michael pretty much represents the first, and largest, school of thought. Most of the Irregulars also seem to have the same definition of enterprise software,

The Results of this approach to enterprise software is that you are able to maximize efficiency, reduce costs and potentially enable some workflows that were not possible before a large system was in place, but you do it all within the existing structure of the enterprise. This is attractive, for example, to Private Equity investors who see an arbitrage potential in using large scale IT implementations as on tool of many to turnaround a business in a lagging industry.

A few of the conclusions of the enterprise software sexiness debate was that soon enough the presentation layer would be peeled back far enough that proper designers could focus more on the sexiness of the software and that would be the solution. That is a little thin on substance however, users are not actually screaming out for prettier interfaces. They really aren’t.

#2 – Surpassing Existing Structure (user first)

Stowe chimed in to the sexy-software debate and made a point that I can often be found making over martinis on a Friday: The next leap in software is putting the user first.

This is the second school of thought which is still emerging: it says that future enterprise software implementations will force massive changes in the very organization of the enterprise. The end goals for this school are to see networks surpass hierarchy. Cross functional teams will be the norm, efficiencies will be replicated and iterated with blinding speed and new product/service development will be a constant, not a project. By putting more power in the hands of the user, both functionally and organizationally, software will have this changing effect.

Front line employees, having access to the same knowledge and data (which was previously locked up), will contribute to the high-level decisions of executives through rapid feedback loops and clued-in executives will not react to obvious needs but will co-opt them.

So this is where we diverge.

A fork in the road, and it is where I think this Enterprise Hot-or-Not debate got off the rails.

You see, many average joes like Scoble are drawing a long-term assumption, and that is that enterprise software is going to converge with where consumer software is right now and where it is going.

The problem is that if you understand current enterprise systems, you know that can’t really happen. You can only hope that things will get a little prettier and perhaps that there will be updates to the software a little more often. IBM, Oracle SAP and others are already starting to deliver updates and UI enhancements more often than they once did (at least it seems that way).

What Scoble is imagining, and what people like Stowe and I dream about on long walks is fundamentally at odds with a large rule-based enterprise platform.

The middle ground that is emerging, which I am not a believer in, is that existing enterprise platforms will continue to dominate the user experience and that more social applications, like social bookmarking, wikis and perhaps blogs, will live alongside these systems.

There is one problem with that: Users won’t take it sitting down.

Those of us who have done large-scale social software implementations have seen that the results are much more nefarious: Once users begin to use social software in their daily work, it begins to capture massive amounts of their attention, and it also influences their thinking. This isn’t immediate, but it happens eventually and is significant.

All of a sudden users will begin to question arbitrary workflows in the SAP install, and they will be frustrated with how news gets pushed out on Sharepoint. The list goes on. The biggest problem isn’t that they are merely frustrated however, it is that they now have the tools to both express and remedy that frustration.

Once example we have seen is with a franchising client that was drop-shipping items to their franchisees who did not need them (this was to create a more consistent cost base for the franchisor). Previously a complaint to corporate would have resulted in a “we are considering your feedback” type response, but instead, the franchisee is now able to air their discontent with the entire network through an internal group blog, who in this case all had the same issue.

Old school (school #1 if you are keeping count) thinking would probably tell you to shut this conversation down immediately and to simply deny the existence of the problem because the drop shipments provided a significant benefit to the central corporation. Luckily this client sits in School #2 and can see that creating a more resilient network is far more beneficial than creating a single short-term efficiency. You cannot create resilient and self-healing networks with rule-based IT platforms. You need a combination of social software and business strategy to accomplish this.

Enterprise software will be sexy, and people will talk about it:

When it disrupts instead of enforces
When Enterprise software is changing organizations, it will make the news. When corporate hierarchies flatten and individuals contribute to both the work and the art of the organization, then it is something they will tell their friends about over drinks.

A sort of “and then the CEO admitted I was right, and I got 25 comments” moment.

When the user is in control
Configurability, personalization and sharing are not considered technologies by most users, they are a base use case for their personal lives. People understand control in a very serious way, and they know when they have it and when they do not.

When it is surprising

Software can be surprising in the best and the worst ways. It should still be surprising though, in some way.

When it changes
I mentioned earlier that people understand control in a very fundamental way. We all understand wealth in a similar fashion, and we know who is reaping the wealth from our work. When enterprise software generates returns for the user in the same way that it generates returns for the enterprise, then users will feel delighted. Whether it is more personal interaction, a sense of control or more personal time, the changes that will be noticed will not be in interfaces or firewalls, but in the actual everyday life of the user.