Debating enterprise software

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December 9th, 2007

I’ve been intrigued by the recent debate about the “sexiness” of enterprise software, initiated in a Robert Scoble post, which was then rebutted in a Michael Krigsman post, who then got criticized in a Nicholas Carr post. I think the debate has already raised some interesting points, and I hope some additional perspectives emerge as the debate continues, so that we can perhaps develop a “synthesis” that will provide some useful advice to the organizations that actually build enterprise software, rather than just blogging about it.

Here are a few additional thoughts and perspectives I’d like to contribute to the conversation:

  1. I think it’s important to distinguish between “inward-facing” and “outward-facing” enterprise applications — i.e., are the intended users employees of an organization (as well as, perhaps, suppliers and others in the “supply chain”), or are they customers who can choose, on a day-to-day basis, whether they want to continue interacting with the organization? I think this is a huge issue because, as Scoble noted in his initial posting, most employees have little or no say over which enterprise application they’re going to use. Heck, most employees don’t even have the freedom to choose the computer they use, let alone the operating system, let alone the Web browser, e-mail program, or even the word processor. Customers, on the other hand, do have a choice; and I think all of us have had experiences with some business web sites that have been so infuriating that we’ve said, “That’s the last time I’ll ever do business with that company!”
  2. Sure, enterprise apps have to have a “high degree of reliability, security, scalability,” as Krigsman puts it; who’s going to disagree with that? But if they’re inscrutable, ugly, and generally user-hostile (as so many of the ERP-style enterprise apps are), then they’re going to cause a longer (more expensive) learning curve, a higher error rate, a higher level of user unhappiness — and, at least in some scenarios, a higher level of employee turnover. A lot of us assume that every employee is shackled to his/her job by virtue of the financial constraints of a mortgage, having to feed the family, etc. But remember that a lot of these enterprise apps are being used for clerical/administrative tasks (order entry, customer service, insurance-claim processing, etc.) by a relatively young, unmarried, fickle 20-something workforce that feels little or no loyalty to its employer, and which could easily decide to quit after a few months of 8-hour work-days fighting enterprise apps that behave as if they were designed by descendants of the Spanish Inquisition.
  3. I would argue that the combination of OS, browser, email, and “office” software is an “enterprise application” of the most basic kind, and one that virtually everyone uses. Without meaning to start a religious war on the subject, I think there’s a general consensus that the Mac version of this “enterprise app” is far friendlier, slicker, and more user-friendly than the comparable environment from Microsoft. But it also outdoes Microsoft in Krigman’s concerns about a “high degree of reliability, security, scalability” — which illustrates Carr’s point, I think, that the two issues don’t have to be mutually exclusive.
  4. Indeed, I would argue that a large percentage of the “consumer” devices that we all use on a regular basis have to be both reliable/secure/scalable and sexy. You could argue that that’s even true for safety-critical devices like automobiles and airplanes (would you fly in a dirty, ugly airplane, with a bunch of hostile flight attendants, if you didn’t have to? That’s why you don’t want to live someplace like, say, Minneapolis, where your choices are Northwest, Northwest, or Northwest Airlines). And it’s certainly true for the iPods, televisions, cell phones, and other such devices. Yes, we’ll tolerate bugs in some leading-edge software products if they’re sufficiently sexy and novel; that’s what “good enough” software is all about. But if my iPod froze and deleted my playlists more than once or twice, I’d throw it out the window, and buy a (shudder) Zune. Or maybe not … maybe I’d go back to a Sony Walkman.
  5. One last point to keep in mind about employees: to an increasing extent, they are starting to control their own technology, and make their own technological choices — that, in my opinion, is part of what Web 2.0 is all about. Big-company employees may not be able to throw SAP out the door and choose their own their own ERP order-entry product; but they can do more and more stuff on their cell phones, and on their own web browser. CIO’s in big businesses will fight this (indeed, are fighting this) tooth and nail, but it’s a losing battle. In the worst case, if the battle gets too ugly, an increasing number of employees in big companies will shrug their shoulders, dance out the door in a long conga line, and start working for smaller companies that are more sensitive to the balance between user-friendliness and reliability/security/scalability.

I’m sure there are a bunch of other bloggers out there with valuable insights and perspectives on these issues. Let’s hear from everyone, and then try to put it all together. After all, just because the majority of mainstream enterprise apps are ugly doesn’t mean that it has to be that way…

3 responses about “Debating enterprise software”

  1. Michael Krigsman said:

    Ed,

    Your points are balanced, in line with Dan Farber’s post at ZDNet: http://blogs.zdnet.com/BTL/?p=7285. Fact is, there is truth on both sides of this fence, which sometimes get lost as the blogs fly back and forth.

    Michael

  2. Luis Suarez said:

    Hi Ed! Have really enjoyed your blog post, for sure! I specially thought very relevant points #1, #2 & #5 with which I also feel rather identified with, more to the point that if I were to write a blog post right now on this very same subject, it would be pretty much along the lines of what you have put together already.

    However, I am just going to let the threads come by and read through them, as I am sure we will see plenty more interaction in the next day or so. And after that time I will put together another blog post with my thoughts on it so that you can see where I will end after reading through them all. So far my feeds are buzzing with comments from all over the place and yours and Dave Snowden’s are the ones I have enjoyed (And agreed with!) the most! Excellent stuff!

  3. admin said:

    Michael, Luis –

    Thanks for the comments; it’s been an interesting discussion. I followed it (one day later) with a review of Donald Norman’s “The Design of Future Things”

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