Enterprise strata isn't as firm as it appears

Enterprises often appear to be like rocks - never changing. The pace of global change socially & technologically is increasingly catching out sedentary firms who fail to evolve, but what are their options?

The febrile, volatile global economic climate combined with accelerating pace of change enabled by internet and mobile tech can make the business world appear impossibly complex. Technology vendor marketing propositions to enterprises aim to exacerbate anxieties around keeping up with current trends, so it can be very hard for both line of business and IT professionals - the two groups who typically explore collaboration technologies - to sort out the wheat from the chaff.

I've spent a considerable amount of time behind the firewall in global companies recently exploring the collaboration options open to enterprises, and can say with some certainty that the the complexity is all in context. Life becomes a lot simpler and more logical when you disentangle broad concepts, inappropriate frameworks from other industries and cultures and the fast changing fashion trends that sweep the business world. Attempting to map your business plans to out of context case histories from other business verticals is a common error; there's no point emulating the culture and technology use models of a rubber widget company in Akron Ohio if you're a global fashion house (or vice versa). It's surprising how many businesses attempt to find and copy a use case they perceive as similar to what they want to do, despite acknowledging that the similarities are barely enough to make retrofitting them to meet their business goals worthwhile.

An empirical approach around the existing processes, infrastructure and goals of your organization is almost always going to be better than the sudden adoption of a 'not invented here'  culture and associated technologies. More fundamentally, while no two businesses are identical, there are some typical layers of technology which are foundational to the resulting ways business is done, and which can have a significant impact on staff inertia when efforts are made to achieve greater efficiencies.

Enterprise computing has been around since the 1960's, when colossal mainframes - after an equally colossal amount of preparation, care and feeding - slowly crunched data, and this Jurassic layer of business strata still exists in some companies today. More typically however these dinosaurs have been superseded by much more sophisticated MISO offerings - the Microsoft, IBM, SAP & Oracle products who can in some cases trace their origins all the way back to the early big but slow processing departments. Big Iron can do amazing things these days - in SAP's case entirely in memory at lightning speed for example - but are still essentially bulk processing, enterprise resource planning (ERP) and various Financial transaction planning and processing.

Crystal Reports was a huge game changing technology in the enterprise space when it emerged in the early nineties: the great benefit was the new ability for technology to create

...unified reports which join different views of the enterprise in one place.Termed Enterprise Reporting, this process involves querying data sources with different logical models to produce a human readable report—for example, a computer user has to query the Human Resources databases and the Capital Improvements databases to show how efficiently space is being used across an entire corporation.

To quote Wikipedia.

This foundational strata layer of enterprise technology is now imbued into all flavors of IT, but at the time was revolutionary. (the Crystal Reports name is now owned by SAP who of course have moved light years ahead with enterprise reporting since those early days). Garbage in garbage out is a major challenge for all enterprise IT initiatives and of course reports, dashboards and other forms of data parsing is only as good as what is put into these systems.

A lot of IT budget and bandwidth is taken up in keeping these foundational systems up and running, and Business Process Management essentially grew out of making sense of finding the right data to fine data for specific contextual reports within this strata layer. This is the language many in enterprise IT world are fluent in, and providing the communications layer of content management, email and telephony (both mobile and pbx) is typically seen as an adjunct to enable staffing and discussion of these core systems. While there is some understanding of a possible need to provision for collaboration technologies in these IT quarters it often comes from a world more used used to meetings, email and documents around their core technologies.

Web 2.0 technologies superseded the 'read only' web and enterprises quickly felt the pressure to provide the user experiences world wide web using individuals enjoyed in their personal lives. Google search, participatory information sharing and interoperability of applications are the foundation of the modern web and the pressure to merge the old world of enterprise applications with the information agility and accessibility of our new world.

Net and mobile technologies provide 'last mile' connectivity for applications that often can't speak this language: Apple's consumer mobile strategy is blossoming while they are arguably ignoring enterprise needs for example. The old order of the Blackberry device, which provides a digital solution for a portable telephone, pager and mail reader is exhausted, as indicated by RIM's predicament.

The cloud and mobile technologies power vacuum is the new, still forming strata layer: the battleground on which future business platforms are being decided.  It is primarily this area where big decisions and gambles are being made by end users: what's dusty and intractable in the organization, what's a transient tech fashion and what's really changing to form this new bedrock to evolve the business on.  Most companies have to think globally now and the challenges of mapping low cost manufacturing with first world and emerging markets changes at a speed which requires sophisticated agility, collaboration, connectivity and security.

Those businesses still thinking conceptually at a Crystal Reports level can survive if they are the owners of cash cows, but for those in more competitive markets the business differentiator is in enabling a culture of collaboration which extends their existing infrastructure. The people and processes come first, then the supporting technology. The challenge for technology vendors is in supporting legacy applications; outside of contractual obligations the enterprise has the ability to transform to succeed, but the larger question is often whether entrenched internal interests have the will or incentives to evolve. Exploring new options can be scary when outside of your frame of reference, whether around a limited skillset open source team keeping a system running or a culture deeply embedded into a supplied legacy application.

These layers of business strata crumble suddenly, and those who do not strategise for the future and anticipate better equipped challengers have historically been seen to become outflanked. Thinking outside the existing old paradigms, even if your head is buried in them and they are keeping you frantically busy, is important if you are to see the longer, broader view to simplify and get ahead...

image: Two billion years of strata, Grand Canyon, Arizona