Hey Enterprise, The Future is Calling

PicardDataPhoneEnterprise software, and the assumptions and paradigms that go with it, are under assault. Consumerized products that find their way into the enterprise are redefining what it means to be an enterprise software application. I was reminded of this very fact just this week, during what has become a rather predictable biennial experience for me: the phone upgrade. The changing of the guard, as it were, sounds rather innocuous, right?   Buy shiny new phone, throw old phone into ocean*. Despite my obvious evangelism and appreciation of new technology, the excitement of the moment is always tempered by a little bit of dread. It’s not a fear of change per se, but just trepidation about the consequences of change. With each new phone comes some sort of data migration, analysis of data plans, incompatibilities, interface differences, reconfiguration, re-personalization, various hassling by the carrier, and questions about accessories. Do I need a new case? It’s time to revaluate note and to-do list apps (again). What unspeakable horrors will the new device do to my contacts sync’d in the car? Inevitably, some legacies have to be let go as a consequence of the transition, and new paradigms are adopted. The whole adventure doesn’t cause any acute kidney pain, but it is time consuming. The phone is a mission critical piece of my technological puzzle and the parallels are very apparent.   If I were an enterprise, the phone along with my primary PC is my digital backbone. Recalling when I first went from a brick phone to a flip, or a flip to Blackberry, or Blackberry to Android, the reaction was always the same. This is just simply better. With every moment, it’s unequivocally obvious that technology has progressed, significantly. I immediate forget about any concerns – because I sure as hell am not going back. Can we say the same about enterprise software?

Unfortunately, the same enthusiasm about enterprise software is rare, despite the same challenges: the data migrations, the incompatibilities, throwing away old ways of thinking and adopting new ones. The result, as I’ve discussed before in Why Build One When you Can Build Two for Twice the Price is a proliferation of legacy solutions (whether homegrown or off-the-shelf) that quite simply refuse to die. Too many enterprise solutions require difficult concessions that may result in a better process and very real value to the overall business, but escapes the understanding of the majority of its users. From the end user’s albeit flawed perspective, adoption proves not only more difficult and time consuming, but offers little tangible benefit in return. The end result we know very well: resistance.

Up to this point, we’ve viewed this phenomenon as strictly a cultural problem. The evidence of a lob-it-over the fence mentality that has degraded over the years into a mortar-over-the-wall regiment of protracted departmental trench warfare. Silo Wars. Or perhaps people are being obstinate and just don’t like change. It’s true that human nature tends to abhor change, but if the specific change provides obvious benefit no one thinks twice about it. Witness Exhibit A, all of modern civilization.

With certain Herculean efforts from a rare champion and solid support from the top, the culture of a company can be intentionally transformed, but it’s always a constant uphill battle that stands to suffer a regression the moment pressure subsides (or the champion departs). The transformation takes considerable time. So it’s no surprise legacy processes and systems persist in numbers. Shoving people into a paradigm is hard work and not always successful; there has to be a better way. With respect to enterprise software, we’re approaching a point of special criticality. It’s becoming more and more difficult to recruit motivated young people to work on things they may otherwise believe belongs in a museum. The disparity in the technological experience between enterprise and consumer has simply become too great to ignore. In order to alleviate this problem, enterprise software has to turn over a new leaf, and start delivering more like that new phone. It’s time to turn top-down upside down. Bottoms-up.

I’ll go back to a smart phone as the digital backbone for an individual. Similarly, enterprise software serves a different type of individual: the corporation. So one might surmise that one employee or department complaining about a system is kind of like your kidney having words about which phone you can use. Bad kidney! But my kidneys doesn’t have feelings, independent thought, or particular motivations. Corporate employees certainly do (well most of them hopefully). So enterprise software has a special challenge in this new millennium to balance the need of the whole with the factions and individuals that make up that whole. It’s the only way to motivate rapid adoption and render the protracted cultural battles obsolete – solutions must appeal from the bottom up. Just like my new phone, they must be simply better. That means a change in focus. Instead of piling on the functionality, quality and user experience must take -at minimum- equal priority. It’s the only reliable way to convince users to go forward so they sure as hell don’t want to go back. But what if an activity must necessarily cost more time for some to help others, how do you justify that to the one who has to do more? Much like the concessions I have to deal with on my new phone, if it’s obviously better, I’m moving forward without hesitation. As long as there’s something in it for me. See how that works? So too must enterprise software demonstrate a measurable benefit at all levels. That’s why the Dropboxes and Basecamps of the world seem to not only be gaining traction, but perhaps will inherit the enterprise. It’s time to quit kicking people through systems they can’t relate to and attract them on their own volition. With that cultural change, technology adoption becomes natural, intrinsic, and perpetual. Who knows, maybe one day enterprise software gets changed out entirely every couple of years – could you imagine that?

So what do you think? Continue the war on culture, or change tactics entirely?

*I am certainly joking. I do not condone the throwing of phones into any ocean, sea, lake, river, fjord estuary, sinkhole, fountain, bathtub, or toilet. Recycle it, give it to someone less fortunate, pawn it on Ebay, dress it up in a hat or use it as the brains of your new hyper intelligent Death Bot domestic assistant android.

  • Ryan

    So does that “bottoms up” me dropping my shorts and mooning the world? 😉

  • Ryan

    The day the white blood cells decide to attack the body is doomed.
    employees and corporation

    • To continue the biological analogy, I’m reminded of mitochondria – endosymbiotic organisms (with their very own DNA) that help convert oxygen to energy in every last one of our cells.

      As for your version of “bottoms up” it certainly sounds like enterprise disruption!

  • Ross Bernheim

    I’d gladly update if the so called “productivity software” actually was easier to use and made me more productive. Please quit trying to make the user interface look pretty and make it work more easily and intuitively. Make it elegant in the simplicity of the interface. Hide the complexity and the little used.

    Apple’s iPod was a perfect example. It had fewer features than other mp3 players and cost more than most of its competitors, but it won by having a better interface that made its features more usable and an elegance to its interface.

    Can’t we learn from the iPod and make our enterprise software experience better?

    • Ross, intuitive design requires limiting new functionality in order to polish existing – trouble is the enterprise business model thus far has been nothing but functionality, regardless of how intuitive or accessible it is.

      • Ross Bernheim

        I’ve been on the receiving end of this far too often. I have been a big fan of Apple’s maniacal attention to detail and polished user experience.

        A large part of the problem is that those who buy the software are not the ones who have to use it. Thus they miss the problems and fall prey to feature creep and a pretty interface rather than a functional one.