Finally, technology is about people

By refocussing its software on business execution, SuccessFactors is putting people, rather than technology, back at the center of enterprise endeavors.
Written by Phil Wainewright, Contributor

Listening to SuccessFactors this week outline its new positioning as a provider of 'business execution software,' I couldn't help being reminded of the early days of what were then called executive information systems. As early as the late 1980s, enterprises started spending large sums of money on complex software whose role was simply to collect information about what was going on in the business and deliver it to top management.

Thirty years later, we've finally reached a point where such systems can be democratized, and instead of that information being expensively collated for the benefit of a privileged handful of top executives, SuccessFactors promises to give everyone in the organization the information they need to help them track whether they — and the teams they belong to — are achieving their goals. Perhaps the product should be called a 'talent information system'.

It's a characteristically aggressive strategy from SuccessFactors, which aims to thrust it out of the narrower performance management segment and grab leadership of what could be a powerful new category of software. Of course, others may argue that this is just another variety of business intelligence, already a highly competitive field. But the genius of what SuccessFactors has done is to link business metrics to performance goals, putting the business intelligence into the visceral context of, 'Am I likely to get a raise/make my bonus/keep my job this year?'

What struck me as I thought this through was that here was yet another take on a theme that seems increasingly prevalent in the briefings and stories I'm hearing this year, on the parallel beats of SaaS, cloud and enterprise 2.0. For a long time, technology has been about eliminating the human element — automating processes and systems to avoid human error, and delivering dispassionate analysis of transactions and outcomes so that management can take objective decisions. Now the pendulum is starting to swing back towards acknowledging the qualitative role that human beings play in processes and operations. The technology is no longer trying to keep them out of the equation. Instead, its role is to provide automation that helps them do a better job of collaborating with each other, focusing their motivation and acknowledging the experience, insight and creativity they bring to their roles.

I know that people sometimes feel diffident about embracing the new trends towards social computing, especially in the stuffy old enterprise. The message I want to keep on promoting is that we have now reached a point with Web technologies where we can, finally, use them to put people instead of machines at the center of what we do — and that is the natural order.

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