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Enterprise Software Too Boring: Oh do come along…

Posted by Bob Warfield on December 10, 2007

Once again Robert Scoble has the blogosphere all atwitter (no pun intended, but it probably is a reasonable pun given Scoble’s predilection to Twitter).  This time its about how Enterprise Software is just not sexy.  I didn’t mind Scoble’s post too much.  In his characteristic way, Robert is not critical, he is quizzical.  But after reading through a raft of posts that picked up on this bogus meme, I became more annoyed.  All I can say to many of these writers is, “Oh please, do come along and get over it.”  For the most part, Enterprise Software is not sexy because most of these folks writing about its lack of sex appeal have no idea what it does.  It’s easy to pick up on consumer software: it is designed to appeal to almost anyone.  To really get Enterprise Software you have to understand and care about the problem it solves.  And in the end of the day, how many people are in a position to do that?

Scoble gets pretty close to this issue when he says:

…how many people in the world actually buy business software? For instance, back when I worked at NEC, a company that had more than 100,000 employees back then (more employees than work at Microsoft, actually) we used SAP. But I didn’t have any say in that matter. Some CIO somewhere else made that decision and forced us all to use SAP.

But it isn’t how many people actually buy business software, it’s how many people actually understand how to turn it to strategic advantage.  This is the real reason it isn’t sexy and people don’t write about it.  Most writers don’t understand the problem it solves, and even those that do can’t find enough readers who understand well enough to care.  And yet, if you were to take the time to understand, you might discover something hugely valuable to your business.  You might see a new perspective on a problem that leads you to a perspective on some other problem you’d never considered. 

The usually clever Umair Haque says this about Enterprise Software:

Enterprise software is lame because it offers little potential for revolutionizing anything – market space, value propositions, industry economics, strategies, etc. Enterprise software is lame because it offers little potential for revolutionizing anything – market space, value propositions, industry economics, strategies, etc.

Umair, do come along, you’re speaking through ignorance if you see no potential for Enterprise Software to revolutionize anything.  Just in Time Inventory completely revolutionized many companies.  Dell and Wallmart would be impossible without it, and while they seem long in the tooth today, they were revolutionary when they got started and for many years after.  JITI is the very essence of edgeonomics.  Just because you don’t know yet what today’s (or tomorrow’s) equivalent of JITI will be, don’t assume that Enteprise Software can’t revolutionize anything.  Someday you’ve got to realize that while edge is good, it isn’t the only thing.  Edge is all about doing what your competition hasn’t thought of yet.  It’s about getting inside their OODA loop.  If you think that getting inside the OODA loop on something that is core to an entire industry isn’t valuable, you’re too sold on being on the edge for the sake of being on the edge.  Think harder about what being on the edge really means.  This is precisly “what’s really wrong with the economy/industries.”

Many of the writers seem to think the problem with Enterprise Software is somehow about UI, or they take offense at the very idea that Enterprise Software should be graded on sex appeal.  Michael Krigsman, for example, says, “Scoble’s question is irrelevant and meaningless.”  Okay, call me a business geek or a Gordon Gecko-style capitalist, but I love hearing about some essential business insight that gets turned into software.  Some days I think Enterprise Software is nothing more than bottling some really clever business best practice insight as software so that those not fortunate enough to be able to have such insights can install the software, turn it on, and get the same benefit.  Towards that end, I think Michael Krigsman is wrong when he says:

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.

Using Enterprise Software purely to achieve a little bit of cost savings is what I call “paving the cowpaths.”  It’s automating what we used to do so we can do it more cheaply.  More on this below, but that’s such a short sighted view of the potential that I hate to see it voiced as the reason d’etre for Enterprise Software to exist.  Michael, go back and think about it some more, you can do better. 

Nick Carr does a better job (and takes Krigsman to task along the way) when he says:

I’m sorry, but I think Krigsman is the one who doesn’t understand enterprise software – or at least doesn’t understand what it could become. The distinction he draws between business and consumer applications is specious. Are we really to believe that making software engaging is somehow incompatible with making it reliable and secure? That’s just baloney.

He’s absolutely right about that, and I would venture to say a lot of these writers have spent little or no time with Enteprise Software if they think otherwise.  I guess Krigsman was stung by Carr, because he wrote another column in his own defense.  In it, he claims that Enterprise Software is hard to use not because the writers set out to make it that way, but for other reasons:

  1. Priorities.
  2. Legacy support requirements.
  3. Product cycle times.
  4. Technology limitations.

To this I can only repeat my earlier admonition, “Do come along!”  That phrase, BTW, I intend to mean, “Oh come on!”  It’s hogwash.  I would argue those 4, or at least the last 3 are strong arguments to adopt newer SaaS solutions and leave behind all that intertia.  The reality is that a lot of Enterprise Software, especially that sold by the biggest players, is pretty darned old.  It’s written in technologies that came along before Java for crying out loud.  Once again I will stipulate that I believe the real problem is in paving the cowpaths.  Many Enterprise Vendors and Customers take far too literal a view about automating old manual processes when instead they should use the software to completely reinvent the processes.  Imagine if all a word processor could do would be to faithfully emulate a typewriter in every detail.  It would be such a pathetic shadow of what modern word processors do that we’d still see a lot of mechanical typewriters around. 

I think I like Vinnie Mirchandani’s column the best.  Vinnie gets how cool a business insight can be, and the power that Enterprise Software can offer to completely reinvent your business.  Take my last company, Callidus Software, for example.  This was a dyed in the wool Enterprise Software company.  We built software that calculates sales compensation.  Sounds boring as heck, right?  I had engineers I’d worked with for years tell me they couldn’t come to Callidus because the problem didn’t excite them.  Worse, we had customers who bought the product and weren’t exciting.  The reason why is really at the crux of a huge problem with most Enterprise Software consumers.  These particular customers I refer to were using Callidus to do what we called, “paving the cowpaths.”  They weren’t trying to do anything fundamentally new with the software.  They were simply trying to do the old stuff more efficiently.  That’s the real problem with Enterprise Software.  Too many are paving the cowpaths.  When you buy Enterprise Software, you have to ask how you can use it to fundamentally change the way you do business.  Many of the categories out there afford you the potential to do that.  Supply Chain Management, ERP, CRM, Incentive Comp, and so many others let you transform the way you do business.  Don’t buy these packages to pave the cowpaths, buy them to enact the transformation.

Now there were some really innovative customers who bought Callidus to radically change how they were paying their salespeople.  They viewed compensation not as an entitlement that one receives for doing work, but as a mechanism to change behaviour.  Those companies achieved astonishing ROI in very short time frames by using compensation to change what their salespeople had been doing.  If you doubt this is possible, just read my interview of Steve Singh at Concur to see how he changed his salespeople’s behaviour, and consequently his customer’s behaviour in terms of whether they selected SaaS or On-premises versions of his software.  There is profound power here.

I do think there is something about many Enterprise vendors who go out of their way to make the software boring.  I used to joke that at the University, User Interface Design and Database Design are taught at exactly the same time.  Hence, Enterprise Software, which is very database intensive, has few UI experts to make sure there is a measure of user friendliness.  I think this is changing for a variety of reasons.  For one thing, as many such as Ross Mayfield point out, the current crop of employees have grown up with better UI, and they won’t stand for anything too terrible in their Enterprise apps.  The days of 3270 green screen operators are drawing to a close.  That’s a good thing. 

37Signals wrote a post entitled, “Why Enterprise Software Sucks.”  Their point is that the buyers aren’t the users.  Translation: Enterprise Software, and especially its suckiness, is a vast conspiracy perpetrated by IT who choose the software but are not the eventual users.  I don’t think it’s quite as bad as all that.  It’s more due to paving the cowpaths and also to not designing Business Process.  That’s right, Business Process needs to be designed just like software or api’s.  If you just let it grow up organically and then try to automate it, don’t be surprised if the result is really gruesomely ugly.  Why wouldn’t it be, given how it came into being?

So let’s get past this issue of whether Enterprise Software is sexy.  Being able to radically change how a business operates is sexy to a lot of folks.  It certainly is to me.  Perhaps it doesn’t involve all the cool UI bells and whistles.  But then again, what does Twitter really do that’s all that sexy if you don’t “get” the problem it solves?

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9 Responses to “Enterprise Software Too Boring: Oh do come along…”

  1. teyc said

    Consumer software enjoy these characteristics:

    a) disposability, replaceable
    b) personal software choice
    c) focussed product
    d) large markets

    Meanwhile, enterprise software (or even some components) can’t be easily replaced. Features accrete over many years, and there are issues of training, which imparts a great deal of necessary inertia on how fast a software evolves.

  2. [...] has a good review of the spat that Scoble has created around his comments about ERP software not being sexy. You read [...]

  3. vmirchan said

    thanks for the link. The problem to me is we are going through a phase of cool UI. .To me just fixing UI without rethinking the business process is not the solution. Some people within the walls of the enterprise do not need a better UI, they should have no UI…

    http://dealarchitect.typepad.com/deal_architect/2007/12/ui-again-dont-p.html

  4. smoothspan said

    Vinnie, I agree with the need to rethink business process. This is exactly my point around not simply repaving the cowpaths.

    Cheers,

    BW

  5. jwhitling said

    From an outsider’s view, anything that a person cannot relate towards their tasks are boring .. Say I’m division CEO .. dashboards are really cool to me .. cash flow estimates where I can drill down to see maybe a top 10 list is really interesting me. Do I care that purchasing can bundle and process mat’l requisitions by vendor? Boring to me but not the purchasing dept. So give a user a UI that fits the task and you’ll find that nothing is boring to that user. Give that user a UI that gets in the way and you’ll find that not only is it boring, but it’s also less productive.

    The point is that effective ERP has to have an editable UI and task flow. Look at the latest CRMs. They are moving that way nicely .. modular, flexible, expandable, task based UIs and work flows. Doing that with old code though is problematic. So who’s really behind in this argument .. the customer or the vendor?

    To be effective, we have to expect customers to bend less and software implementors to bend more. I would also argue that this exactly where the future of software vendor revenue is. Certainly not as easy as selling boxes though ..

  6. smoothspan said

    Jwhitling, you raise an interesting question: does customizable UI help or hurt? I won’t try to tackle it here in any detail, but suffice it to say there are strong arguments going both ways. Most of the best UI’s are not particularly malleable. The problem is similar to the one marketers have. Everyone is a consumer of UI (and marketing), hence everyone thinks they are experts and can make better UI. The reality is that very few people are actually very good at UI design. We live with a lot of very poor UI in almost all software as a result.

    Cheers,

    BW

  7. jwhitling said

    Bob
    Your point kind of makes my argument .. why rigidly tie down the UI when a “good” UI is such a subjective evaluation. While UI cannot be completely flexible just allowing the customer to involve themselves in the process solves the main problem, that of being tagged as having boring software. I like your blog .. it makes me verbalize why I think the way I do. Maybe it changes the way I think too .. ;-)

    PS: I’m a box software seller these days .. no customizable UI here! So I see both sides. IMO the future of profitable software is in things like flexible UIs and work flows and task alarms. These are tools that we need to use for quicker implementations as much as anything else. We just have to make sure we get paid well for it while it’s still a differentiator.

  8. [...] Comments jwhitling on Enterprise Software Too Boring…smoothspan on Enterprise Software Too Boring…jwhitling on Enterprise Software Too [...]

  9. epowell101 said

    Very useful overview of the subject. In the end, companies ARE processes that process information and otherwise take action; you can view people and tools / technologies as supporting those processes. What’s amazingly difficult and hugely valuable is changing processes in a way that transforms the competitiveness of a business. For many firms, you’re talking about social engineering on a massive scale — think about changing the behavior of brokers, for example, at a bank with 100k employees. Looked at that way, to me, enterprise software is critical, valuable, and I suppose even sexy.

    Many times SaaS and even open source approaches to market are advocated based on the idea that they ‘get around’ the IT buyer. The argument is that even Microsoft and the PC itself sort of did an end run ‘around’ the IT buyer. So the grass roots approach can work. However, if processes are ultimately where value is created by the corporation, to create value the software must ultimately facilitate a change the processes. In other words, just because you give 100k people a gun, does not mean you have an army. Enterprise software is at least as much about creating an army as it is about arming lots of individuals.

    Outsourcing IT has been a cyclical phenomena for a long time. Yes, there are now increasing returns to scale from cloud computing for a variety of reasons that Bob points out. However, an even more powerful phenomena might be ever higher levels of abstraction in development and in API design. By enabling more rapid innovation and flexible processes, tomorrow’s software, because it was developed at a higher level of abstraction, better delivers value to the enterprise. Putting the data in the cloud, while it saves money, also creates a risk of lock in that to some extent counteracts the benefits of lower cost and presumably improved ease of use.

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