December 13, 2007
New wave IT analyst James Governor has written a long post that picks up on last weekend's hubbub about the "sexiness" (or lack thereof) of enterprise software, a hubbub that started with Robert Scoble scratching his Charlie Brown-like head, moved on to Mike Krigsman accusing Scoble of not understanding enterprise software, proceeded to see the Grandstander Known as Yours Truly coming to Scoble's defense (as I am wont to do) and accusing Krigsman of being the one who doesn't understand enterprise software, took a detour into Ross Mayfield talking about getting laid, and eventually ended up with all sorts of yo-mama-ing Enterprise Irregulars, Regulars, and Rubberneckers leaping gleefully onto the Techmeme pig pile. (Can pigs leap?) Bottom line: nobody understands nothing.
I just saw, by the way, that the "hubbub" has been officially elevated to the status of "firestorm."
Look, dear, it's a ... FIRESTORM!
Batten the damn hatches. No more than two on a match. Semper fi, mofo!
(Before I forget: can we please take the adjective "enterprisey" by the scruff of the neck and fling it forcefully out of the vocabulary?)
I seem to have lost control of my lede on this post. I'll start again.
New wave IT analyst James Governor [blah blah blah]. Let me tell you: it's a rare event for Governor to run off at the mouth in this fashion. He's generally a terse fellow, being British and all. (I know for a fact that he has lobbied Twitter to reduce its character limit on tweets from 140 to 97.) Round about the middle of his ramble, just after he tosses in a photo of the Kindle, he states a point that we too often lose sight of in our desire to convince ourselves that we are Masters of Our Fate: to wit, most of the great business model "breakthroughs" are really just accidents that happened to happen while some dudes (gender-neutral) were doing something that interested them. (Governor points to Google and Facebook as recent examples.) It's only afterwards that the eggheads and pundits rush in to create the illusion that Painstaking Business Logic and Carefully Plotted Strategy were at work from the start. We are as Gods on Earth - at least in retrospect.
Innovation emerges from indirection. (Remember: nobody knows nothing.) And indirection is a quality that is not dreamt of in the philosophies of the big-ass enterprise software applications, like ERP, that are characterized by having three initials and enormous sales forces. Governor points to a very insightful post by a guy named Sigurde, or Sig, who appears to spend a lot of time in the alps, where the air is clear and the thinking is, too:
According to Sig, ERP actually stands for Easily Repeatable Process: "Processes that handle resources, from human (hiring, firing, payroll and more) to parts and products through supply chains, distribution and production. Known to be rigid, but handle events and transactions with precision and in volume. Systems deliver value through extensive reports and full control over resources. Resource oriented, transactional, event driven systems. Delivered by system vendors with roots in accounting using up to 25 year old technological solutions." But Sigurde is far more interested in the Barely Repeatable Process (BRP): "Typically exceptions to the ERPs, anything that involves people in non-rigid flows [like] the daily unplanned issues that happen in every organisation. The activities that employees spend most of their time on every day. Processes that often start with an e-mail or a call.
Bingo. There's a reason that the software tool most frequently used for everyday business analysis in companies of all sizes is still Excel. (I defy you to prove me wrong.) Excel gives the individual direct control over the manipulation of information in a way that is light years beyond the capacity of your typical ERP system. Three-letter enterprise applications are institutional, not personal, but institutions, as Governor notes, do not innovate; people do. Enterprise apps are designed to prevent accidents, not encourage them. They're anti-exceptional.
Of course, Excel and other traditional "personal productivity" programs are extremely limited - they're cumbersome, dweeby, and they are not designed for easy collaboration (despite many attempts at retrofitting). They feel, in short, like software - and the only good software is software that doesn't feel like software. Compare Excel (or, god forbid, a typical ERP system) to a run-of-the-mill Web 2.0 site, and you get a sense of how far ahead of business apps consumer apps have jumped when it comes to ease of use and ease of collaboration.
That brings me, and Governor, to the present, and the impending web-spawned firestorm in business software.
You heard me: FIRESTORM!
Governor quotes Doug Merritt, a guy from SAP who apparently has been up in the alps with Sig recently: "I don’t worry about IBM and Oracle. I worry about Google, Amazon, and Facebook." Then again, Merritt says, "the 'consumer' companies haven’t fully realised the change that’s upon us yet." Bingo twice over. You need the BRP for the people and you need the ERP for the institution - and you need them tied together in a seamless web-wise bundle with a pretty ribbon that doesn't scream "software!" at you. Governor thinks the twain shall meet in SAP's upcoming offerings. "SAP delivering 37Signals ad-hoc collaboration with real enterprise process data and objects is sexy," he says: "'Wow. We only just hooked up - and you’re going to let me see your … purchase order …'”
So will SAP be the good shepherd that leads the enterprisey folks - shoot me now - to the promised land? Who knows. Stranger things have happened. But seeing as that nobody knows nothing and the biggest breakthroughs are accidental, I wouldn't bet on it. But whether it's SAP or Google or Salesforce or Facebook or 37Signals or Workday or Ozzie's Microsoft or some unknown kid spilling Red Bull on his keyboard, the kindling has been lit and there's no stopping it now. Just as pickup trucks can be brawny yet nimble, enterprise software can be stable yet sexy.
Enough with the mashed-up metaphors already.
Say it: FIRESTORM!
The ERP-BRP contrast is similar to others I've seen over the past few years:
1. Cynefin (Dave Snowden) - Ordered (known & knowable) vs. Unordered (complex & chaotic) domains. See "A Leader's Guide to Decision Making", Harvard Business Review, Nov. 2007
2. Exploitation/Exploration - Michael Tushman at Harvard Business School. See his papers on the "ambidextrous organization"
3. Performance organizations vs. Learning/Innovation organizations - Singer & Edmondson
4. Volume organizations vs. Complex operations - Geoffrey Moore
Looks like a contrast that's resonating.
Ouch or Wow?
nice to know that the skiing is good for something :)
Walter, funny that you should mention the article in HBR, did disagree a bit with that one as you can see here http://thingamy.typepad.com/sigs_blog/2007/12/framework-for-d.html
Otherwise I agree, it resonates, and thanks to all the time spent with SAP lately, I can tell that they do agree as well.
I suspect they're frequently being reminded by their customers that a spot of help for all those iffy barely repeatable processes would be appreciated...
Posted by: sig at December 13, 2007 01:56 PM
Sorry you wasted so much writing talent on these weak arguments. I responded on ZDNet (again):
Posted by: mkrigsman at December 13, 2007 02:25 PM
There are changes afoot in the way enterprise applications are sold.
Enterprise applications get so ingrained within a business that changing to a competitor is a very unpalatable proposition. So in order to find new markets enterprise software vendors are seeing that by changing their message slightly and using newer technologies, they can move away from the big, clumsy monolithic applications of old and start appealing to Small and Medium size businesses – essential if they are to expand their client base. New business from new market sectors.
This forces a change in price point. And that changes the sale more towards the high volume, low cost software application sector. And that forces a change in user interface. Low cost, high volume software is now being written around Web 2.0., Facebook, Saleforce, Twitter etc... a slick and easy to use interface is what individuals and small businesses are coming to expect from cheaper software.
The above is a slightly edited extract of a blog post from last month on the subject of Enterprise Applications and User Interfaces
P.S. Thanks for the book Nick, it is a great read.
Posted by: Paul Wallis at December 13, 2007 02:57 PM
Eat lead, Krigsman.
Nick, James was born in LA, and is as American as he is English. He is also a fellow Enterprise Irregular. As are Mike, Ross, Sig and others you mention above. Many of us were with SAP last week, and Oracle the month before, and a few of us were with TCS this week, and will be with CA next week. We disagree vehemently within this group - but all of us are in to make enterprise software, its economics, its ecosystem, its innovation quotient etc better. I am one of the fiercest critics of the value from enterprise software.
I don't see you at these events. If you are genuinely interested in enterprise software, we welcome you to engage with us. But be prepared to come talk about a whole bunch of architectural, business process, systems integration, licensing, upgrade management etc issues. No, not sexy at all. But this is a the real world of enterprises. And I dont mean just the GEs and the JPMorgans.
Even small to mid sized companies have complex multi-national and regulatory issues. And they certainly do not want more complexity from their software. But please - slapping on a better UI or moving the infrastructure to a utility model, while important are 2 of 100 things, customers want enterprise software to do better.
Posted by: vinnie mirchandani at December 13, 2007 03:45 PM
Well said Vinnie...
Nick, perhaps you shouldn't be so dismissive of the Enterprise Irregulars when you clearly don't have any idea of our constituency or our collective reach and influence? I'm wondering if you even realize that James and virtually everyone involved in this conversation (save for yourself and Scoble) are part of the EIs? I also wonder if you realize just how passionate and actively engaged most of us are with each other, and how we continuously push back against one another testing our own hypotheses? Makes us all smarter.
I'm also wondering why you really care if enterprise software is sexy or not...I thought IT Didn't Matter. :)
Posted by: Jason Wood at December 13, 2007 04:15 PM
Jason, I have great respect for the Enterprise Irregulars and have learned a huge amount from their posts and other writings, in all their diversity. (And, yes, I know James is a member.) I would not be (and have never been) dismissive of them at all. Indeed, I believe this entire post is basically just a gloss on (and recommendation of) James's post, as many of my previous posts have been glosses on and recommendations of other works by EIs.
Vinnie, I assumed James was British because I happened to meet him in London - I apologize if I got that wrong. Americans can be terse too (if rarely).
Although I've developed quite a few enterprise software applications, I tend to identify more with the aesthetics of "consumer" applications for many of the reasons Nick writes about.
Enterprise software often feels clunky and unusable because it's developed in an organization with too many cooks in the kitchen, conflicting goals, and a lack of clarity about the usage patterns of the end user. Apps (are we still calling it software?) that target end users as both the buyer and the user are highly focused by necessity. Of course many of them fail at sexiness but I believe that the companies that develop for that audience are less encumbered and are able to pursue simple, uncluttered UIs that just work.
I don't understand the assertion that Enterprise software is by nature more "stable." It all depends on the organization behind it.
Fair enough; although I believe the plural "you" would've been better than "them" since you were replying to an active (and original) member of the EIs. ;)
Posted by: Jason Wood at December 13, 2007 04:57 PM
Just read Mr. Krigsman's riposte, and it is apparently based on the idea that pickup trucks can't be nimble. I beg to differ. To be nimble is to be quick in movement, agile, responsive - and both a Porsche and a pickup can accomplish this. It all depends on context. I'd call a Porsche more nimble in a precision driving course, and a pickup more nimble on a hillside - where a Porsche would be the opposite of nimble.
To carry this analogy a little further, an entire industry has grown up around the sexy, nimble, formerly utilitarian pickup. In the same way, and probably to better results, non-enterprise software can be adapted and applied in an enterprise setting. Enterprise software can indeed be sexy; much sexier than non-enterprise software if we but give it the chance, because it's also powerful. We just have to allow it into the setting.
But people who have decided it cannot be are not allowing this to happen, because they control the purchasing and direction of corporate enterprise software. I've been in meetings where "sexy" options were being presented for use at a major corporation, but were set aside because, among other reasons, they shared control of some database content, rather than leaving it in complete control of IT. Control and lack of trust were the reasons usability, better knowledge management, and ease of use were set aside.
It's like telling lawyers and economists that legalese and economics can be made readily comprehensible: why would they do that? It would halve their billable time.
Posted by: alexfiles at December 13, 2007 05:06 PM
The "firestorm" rages on! I'm glad I was able to provide you with the title for your latest post :)
Posted by: pmizota at December 13, 2007 06:54 PM
Wow, Sig and Nick in a blog mash-up. I wouldn't have imagined this 6 months ago. Good to see the mutual awareness. Makes the reading more interesting.
Nick, you are ok, too...I don't care what Arrington says about you -)
BTW - you want to see something really sexy...watch Steve Ballmer below
Posted by: vinnie mirchandani at December 13, 2007 08:28 PM
I work also on Enterprise software and as Vinnie mentions this includes "architectural, business process, systems integration, licensing, upgrade management etc issues." but there is also one issue that we discuss and that Vinnie doesn't mention: user adoption. And this has everything to do with sexiness.
What's funny is that at the same time there is a new report that is available: The Global Intranet Reports 2007, “Trends” and “Analysis”.
While the report is not free, there are 2 documents that are available
* Global Intranet Survey Highlights
* Intranet 2.0 Maturity.
What's interesting is to see how web 2.0 technologies (and I assume UI paradigms) are actually coming into the enterprise world.
Posted by: Romuald at December 14, 2007 01:13 AM
ah... yes, mr. krigsman. to quote you regarding nick's weak arguments (tho, at least he's not a hypocrite):
"What’s important is matching form to function."
vroom, vroom! look at that function!
collective intelligence never looked so hip! man, all you need is a big "beta" moniker and you could be in next year's techcrunch40 with that sexy "vulnerability guage."
As any undergraduate student of evolution knows, sexual selection can often be fairly arbitrary but extremely powerful.
Decoupling the UI from the underlying systems will allow accidental breakthroughs to happen faster. No, those attributes that are selected as 'sexy' will not be decided by the likes of SAP, but they may well provide the breeding ground.
This argument has made it down to my rusty corner of the world (Tivoli). See my post if you are interested...Nicholas Carr Might be Right
Posted by: Botchagalupe at December 14, 2007 08:31 AM
To answer the only question I think is properly expressed: yes, pigs can leap (all mammals can, except the elephant) however, not high enough to pile on top of so many speculations.
Posted by: Bertil at December 14, 2007 09:51 AM
One's conclusions will be based on one's perspective at the moment. For myself, having worked with MANY MANY MANY software companies (both consumer and enterprise), I think the perspective needs to shift based on the specific circumstance / product / company / goals being examined.
Let's also remember that blog back-and-forths are fueled by strong opinions on one side or the other. By it's nature, that tends to remove nuance from the discussion.
For those commenters (on this blog, my blog, and others) who seem to take the whole thing so seriously, perhaps it's time to lighten up.
Posted by: mkrigsman at December 14, 2007 12:12 PM
Nicholas Carr Might be Right
That pretty much sums it up.
Posted by: Nick Carr at December 14, 2007 04:18 PM
Romauld, of course user centricity is important. But I would bet lots of money that even if SAP, Oracle had Ajax, FB, other web 2.0 front ends enterprise adoption would not increase dramatically. Look at Vista and its sweet Aero look and feel and yet look at slow corporate adoption.
Same with SAP 6.0, Oracle 12. Why? because they did not fix so much else wrong with enterprise sw including its economics, other compelxity Just focusing on UI is a huge mistake...
also, 80% of corporate messaging is now between servers, gadgets, sensors...what Sun calls the "Internet of things" and they dont need no UI.
Posted by: vinnie mirchandani at December 14, 2007 07:15 PM
Just because enterprise software is geeky and bloated doesn't mean that it isn't trying it's durndest to be sexy. Let's review the last few enterprise software waves: 1) client/server computing - an attempt to do in the enterprise what people had been doing for years on home pcs, 2) thin/client computing - a mass enterprise hysteria for all things internet, driven by a mass consumer hysteria for all things internet, 3) Web 2.0/Rich Internet app stuff - a slavish insistence that enterprise software be as usable as, for example typepad or blogger.
I vented further in this vein on the WebGuild site under sex sells in enterprise software too!
Posted by: ckeene at December 14, 2007 09:18 PM
The difference is that "good" software solves a problem while enterprise software is an answer looking for a problem to solve. Most ERP vendors like SAP and Oracle make MOST of their money (67% of total revenue per contract) in the upgrade/maintenance phase: If it ain't broke, you can't charge to fix it.
Their corporate "customers" can pass the costs down the supply chain distributing it on consumers. On the other hand, when a individual consumer buys a software product, if it constantly breaks, they cannot pass the cost down any further.
Remember the BSOD? Can you imagine Detroit if your car broken down every 10 miles? When legitimate market forces work, the products (cars or software) are more reliable.
Posted by: Linuxguru1968 at December 21, 2007 08:45 PM
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