From 2005 until 2008 I blogged anonymously under the title, Systematic Viewpoints. My purpose was to capture observations on my (then) re-entry into the enterprise software world. I’ve recently decided to lay to claim my thoughts, so here they are, very lightly pruned.
The original hosting domain is no longer around but they do reside elsewhere in their static and anonymous entirety. If you ask me I’ll point them out – but really, there must be something better for you to do.
In a recent interview with one of our analysts, a Fortune 500 company’s HR director said (not verbatim) “It’s not HR’s job to define our culture. It’s the CEO’s job. It’s our job to communicate that culture.”
While I understand the position I have to say it doesn’t sit fully well with me. What do you say? Should HR have more of a voice in defining a company’s culture?
I’ve been asked to be the lead for my company’s thinking on portal strategy and vision. I’m pleased to do so and excited about the direction. If you want to know more, drop me a line at systematicviewpoints(at)gmail(dot)com.
I’ve been involved with employee portals in at least 4 Fortune 25 firms in the past decade. I can say with some assurance that when it comes to their portals, what passes for long-term strategy in many large enterprises comes up decidedly short.
Strategy seems to be a bad word with a lot of enterprise middle management. There’s an artificially high value on short-term deliverables, getting easy wins and picking low hanging fruit. They believe they’re being agile and quick on their feet. They think it’s wasteful to be overly analytic. Quarterly goals are set at the expense of long-term vision, and the sad truth is that these managers are often in a revolving door; an ambitious manager achieves some carefully managed-down objectives, gets his or her gold star and is promoted in 24 months or so leaving a successor to clean up.
IMHO the baby has been thrown out with the bathwater.
I’ve known developers who have literally built, dismantled, and rebuilt the same system 3 times in a decade as the cycle of ‘new thinking’ turns endlessly. People with experience and long vision are often pigeonholed as being old-school, unable to think out of the box and have doubt cast on their often pragmatic stances. I was one of them. The outside experts were trusted to know more. I became one of those. Suddenly I knew more and am respected. Magical!
If I could advise these companies on anything, it would be train managers to be patient, to demonstrate why it really does take time to achieve world-class results and to let the first quarter of a project be spent developing a thoughtful and robust strategy that provides real vision and line of sight. They might finally stop churning and achieve the results that their mission statements so optimistically project.
When I sit down with a CIO or CFO I’m direct about the need for and value of a business-aligned strategy and honest about the time and effort it takes to achieve the goals they envision. Typically I get back honest appreciation and sometimes, relief. It’s not a cakewalk – these are sharp, brilliant people who cut to the chase with brutal efficiency. You will be mightily challenged, you must know your facts and truths and be prepared to turn on a dime from your prepared delivery. But one thing they universally recognize and appreciate is honesty. Don’t sugar-coat, misrepresent or adulterate the facts for your most senior management. They will respect you for it. You’ll suddenly be smarter, too.
I’ve been watching the kerfuffle over Scoble’s post and chewing on the subject some more. As Thomas points out, we’ve been over this before but it still merits thought.
My perspective? I have little insight into how usability and interface refinements will make their way into ERP products as delivered because I don’t build the stuff. I’ve been responsible for implementing it, I certainly have had to use it, and now I make a fine living making it usable in big-ass companies.
I used to take the stance that there was no reason that enterprise software shouldn’t be any harder to use than transactions at Amazon, eBay or [your favorite e-tailer here]. Those sites buffer a lot of complexity and multiple integrations from us tender humans.
I can name 2 differences that matter. First, the effect of the money trail – if users of commercial interfaces can’t complete their transaction, revenue stops. The enterprise doesn’t always have that level of motivation, depending on the function in question. Second, I’ve yet to see an organization that has deep global processes. Of course certain processes are mandated into localized versions, but more often its a reflection of the M&A activity that grew the organization on top of the regional variations.
Most often, companies fund a ‘vanilla’ ERP deployment and hope that their users can get through some training. It’s a big challenge in global organizations to quantify the variability, organize all the assets, apply security and personalization and make the stuff easier to use. Given the lack of budget for usability features and the heavy lifting it takes, it’s little wonder that most organizations aren’t taking the steps necessary, but why aren’t they demanding better user experience from their enterprise software?
In most cases I think it’s because they too have been conditioned to think that it must be complex. Perhaps this comes down from the days when the computers were behind glass and their keepers wore lab coats. All too often the IT community projects a certain machismo around ERP usability:
It’s non-essential, ‘nice to have’
It’s a ‘training issue’.
Not an issue, everything passed UAT.
We delivered the user requirements
Enterprises should share some of the blame and adding ease of use is to the features they’re requiring vendors to deliver. I’m seeing this begin to happen as ERP maturity evolves within companies. Users are speaking up, and in some cases where metrics are not being met it’s being linked to usability issues.
At the company I was with 2 years ago the CEO had been holding town halls around the world. Corporate Communications had put together an intranet site to support the message, including a section that was positioned as being the CEO’s commentary.
One day I was chatting with the head of communications, and he asked me if I’d read the latest installment. Of course I had, personally I always found this section to be too scripted. I said that I thought it would help employees establish a sense of connection with the CEO if he were to keep a simple blog, and take a few minutes to type (or dictate) his own, honest impressions after the events, like “What a great reception I got when I arrived” or “A young man in a yellow shirt asked a really great question”, or anything that honestly sounded like his own thoughts.
My colleague’s eyes went wide. He said (I paraphrase) “Blogs? Blogs are diarrhea. I despise blogs. That’s not an appropriate vehicle for our CEO to communicate.” I understood his position – his career was built by carefully crafting and polishing words and paying great attention to nuance. Yet I could see that he wasn’t seeing the potential so I held firm, suggesting that people were more likely to react positively to a more personal voice. Eventually we agreed to disagree.
A year later the CEO’s Gen-Y son had convinced him that he should be using a blog to effectively communicate with his employees, and he wanted to start right away. I’d hate to be a senior corporate communications professional whose executives were getting direction from their kids before they got it from me.
If, in your professional capacity you may be impacted in any way by social media, don’t be dismissive. Pay attention to the changing landscape before it passes you by.
Best practice #5 – Remain neutral! Social media in the enterprise elicits emotional responses in some. Don’t let personal biases impair your ability to perceive the opportunity related to social media, even if you can’t fathom why people would use IM, blogs, wikis, Twitter…or whatever comes next. Something will and it deserves your objective attention.
I’ve spent over half of the last 10 years helping enterprises get greater use of their eBusiness systems. Having been by turns a graphic designer, IT and development manager, user experience advocate and close ally of business, marketing and communications professionals and strategist mine is a particularly multidisciplinary approach.
I sense the beginnings of a change coming about, although I think it will be some time before it’s fully manifested in products and ultimately in the workplace. I’m still trying to hash this nascent trend out, so bear with me and please do call me out or remix these thoughts.
How did we end up here?
If I had to describe a typical ERP deployment (necessarily a fiction, there’s no such thing) , it would have the characteristics of an installation – scaled to the usage estimates, tuned to perform acceptably but not optimally under real-world conditions, configuration changes only, no customizations allowed by IT.
It took longer and cost more than projections. Business requirements were gathered but often ended up being deferred so the critical path could be cleared of dependencies that would incur further costs and/or delays, worsening the tension that already existed between the business audience and IT. A launch is achieved with one or two key business functions being supported. ‘Features’ are rolled out over multiple releases until all the intended functional solutions are live.
What happens next is highly variable. Frequently budgets have been strained to the point where planned change management activities are scaled back or even eliminated in favor of some form of training. This is often remote and offered for a limited time after a launch event. Recorded training is available for new employees – if they can find it.
Professional users in the functional areas begin to struggle with the gaps between local procedures and the methodology of the system as delivered. Specific pain points arise: inconsistent data sources, multiple screens to perform single tasks, you name it. Workarounds abound – job aids and cheat sheets are circulated, and a body of underground tacit knowledge required to successfully perform job functions begins to arise. Eventually metrics begin to suggest that the ROI is not being met, and the blaming begins.
What’s to be done?
How it plays out depends on how the people responsible for the systems are rewarded. I’ve just re-read an interview with Donald Norman from 2000 where he took the usability profession to task for not understanding how business people typically get promoted, and emphasizing long-term benefits to the wrong audience. His point was if a manager gets a very narrowly defined task completed without making a mess of their P&L sheet for the year, they get promoted. Usability? Service quality? Benefit realization? Not my job – that’s for the next person to achieve.
Companies are frequently motivated to address problems arising from ERP deployments because senior management relies on them for critical processes and key data and they are not achieving the desired results. They assign that ‘next person’ to improve the system. Sometimes they call in folks like me.
Over time and through many engagements we’ve identified a spectrum of possibilities that improve in varying ways the business results that ERP supports, depending on a given company’s appetite for change and customizations. It’s not about user-centric design, although that’s a key component. It’s about tasks and goals and how people get through complex, lengthy processes. It’s about how the systems support the strategic goals of a company. Sorry to say, no system delivers that out of the box.
Vendors know the truth.
This challenge is very clear to ERP vendors. Their interfaces are brittle and monolithic; corporate IT experiences so much pain customizing and maintaining them that they have very compelling arguments against modifications. SaaS companies like Salesforce.com and Workday are invading their turf.
Oracle knows this, but they’re too busy rationalizing their product lines to be able to address it head-on yet.
SAP knows this and even though they provide tools for IT to tweak interfaces they are not used in may enterprises for the reasons above.
Change is coming…maybe.
One of the biggest challenges in any system is how to design for large numbers of people across many disciplines. Many of today’s applications try to accommodate just about everyone, creating extraordinary complexity. This applies as much to Microsoft Office products as it does to ERP. Word and Outlook are ‘feature-rich’ to the point of being ridiculous for must folks.
Other paradigms for improving the interface to ERP have been in play, most prevalent being the dashboard. They can be terrific for information consumers but they are often implemented with limited interactivity for decision support. A very compelling set of demonstrations was given at SAP’s Munich TechEd event showing interfaces and widgets that begin to decouple interactions and data manipulation from the ERP interface. Oracle and SAP both have dedicated groups looking at ways to exploit the best of Web 2.0 technologies and interfaces to the business solutions.
I’m not sure whether folks can cope with widgets floating around their computer desktops, monitoring data, work lists, or enabling faster/simpler transactions. But in general people prefer use-specific interfaces and devices over multipurpose ones. I commonly use the kitchen as a case in point. Your own kitchen probably has a range/oven, a microwave and some form of toaster-oven. 3 devices, all specialized interfaces for making food hot in a chamber.
Folks like Don Norman have envisioned more embedded computing and fewer general purpose systems in the future. In the last year specialized computing products have bloomed in the consumer space: digital picture frames at Target, iPhone and iPod Touch, Chumby. Perhaps the general public’s embrace of Web 2.0 interfaces (which seem to tend towards the single-purpose) is beginning to create sufficient demand that the product managers for ERP systems can contemplate adding them to feature sets. For some interesting insight into the dynamics of that process, see “Why 2.0 Didn’t Start in the Enterprise” by Paul Pedrazzi.
How does this impact the enterprise?
I see a shift away from the massive interface, the all-in-one portal and the soup-to-nuts dashboard in favor of compact, customizable and intelligent widgets, applets and services that can be called upon demand or pegged to a corner of the screen. I see a move away from the browser and the page paradigm that demands information architectures and navigation, towards a set of easily grabbed tools that I can use in combination or snap together like Lego blocks to solve my here and now business problem, and move on. The browser will still have it’s place because it’s a great interface for linear processes, but it will stop trying to be everything to everyone. I’m almost reminded of the March 1997 issue of Wired magazine, which breathlessly declared the death of the browser. I still have my copy.
When I watch the Demo Jam video I think that it’s some of the better thinking I’ve seen in this space in quite some time, but realistically speaking these innovations aren’t ready for general availability. Enterprises are often years away from major upgrades of ERP; in fact the days of the sweeping upgrade are probably past for many organizations. It’s incremental change that will be coming, so I don’t expect the landscape to change drastically in the next few years. But it’s an exciting trend and when these innovations begin to creep into the enterprise, I fully expect demand for more to rise.
Citigroup has seen it’s stock drop some 30% in the last month due to ‘exposure’ related to subprime mortgage debt issues. Last weekend, the CEO, Chuck Prince stepped down as a direct result of the losses. Prince Alwaleed bin Talal bin Abdul Aziz al Saud owns about three and a half percent of Citigroup. In an interview for Fortune, Prince Alwaleed comments:
“It is a pity what is happening, but I hope that a big lesson is learned in the board of directors and the management of Citibank.
Q: What is that lesson specifically?
A: The lesson is that, No. 1, this management has to be at the highest class possible. No. 2, they have to have a succession plan. You can’t have a company that size without a [successor] ready. And No. 3, you need a professional who has run a bank.”
Fascinating to see succession planning highlighted as a take-away for the board in light of write-offs approaching US $15 billion, yet I wonder how realistic it is for a company like Citigroup (or Merril Lynch, who are in the same position and presumably courting some of the same candidates) to have someone- internal or external – primed and ready to step up when the going gets weird. Jockeying for the top can be such a socio-political struggle that I personally can’t imagine modeling a plan to contain it.
So anyway, the job is apparently still open if anyone’s interested. Didn’t see it listed on careers.citigroup.com, though.
Microsoft Silverlight, Adobe Air and Mozilla Prism, that is. I wish I were clever enough to fit Yahoo Widgets into that title, but my brain just didn’t go there. In any case interesting things may be going on with interfaces. There’s a sudden confluence of ‘solutions’ aimed at pulling experiences out of the browser. This has some positive aspects, the browser remains a page-oriented environment and it demands a degree of bending to it’s will. In the enterprise space, there is great appeal to detaching meaningful experiences from the monolithic approach that ERP delivers.
Is there a downside? I can imagine desktops becoming cluttered with multiple disparate interfaces (You are in a maze of twisty little GUIs, all unalike) with a lack of context providing the conceptual or actual relationships between them. Do people even want to have all these little bits floating about? The proportion of folks who are able to manipulate their computing environments remains low, and I for one don’t believe that Millenials are somehow naturally equipped or even inclined to be more than consumers of services. In some quarters there seems to be an almost mystical attachment to the idea that young-uns are deeply skilled laptop Jedis. I’d like to see some real-world testing, my gut says that they can easily learn to use new apps and devices but they’re just as inclined to ignore customization as us dinosaurs. I grew up on TV, that doesn’t make me an expert on signal propagation or any other technical aspect of the medium. Just a consumer, sorry.
That said, I’m thrilled to see interest in alternative interfaces at places like SAP. I believe the real benefits will come when the UX and design people get to apply their disciplines. It feels like we’re at the start of some innovative thinking around enterprise application interfaces, and it’s about freakin’ time.