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Productivity software as games?

In a thinly veiled swipe at Microsoft, Sam Lawrence, CMO at Jive Software challenges readers to question why productivity software is so clunky:Shouldn’t productivity software make us want to work? I mean, it’s goal is to make us (and our company) more productive.
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Written by Dennis Howlett, Contributor on

In a thinly veiled swipe at Microsoft, Sam Lawrence, CMO at Jive Software challenges readers to question why productivity software is so clunky:

Shouldn’t productivity software make us want to work? I mean, it’s goal is to make us (and our company) more productive. Given that, the most goal-oriented software I can think of is gaming software. That industry is hyper-competitive. They know our attention and dollars are precious and they’re myopically focused on delivering value within their product. Conversely, there isn’t any competition for productivity software. Productivity software wouldn’t come close to cutting the mustard in the gaming industry. For one, we’d all be playing the same freaking game for the last 20 years. That’s 20 years of Donkey Kong. Don’t like it? Tough, sit there and play.

It's a clever argument but life in enterprise land is never quite that simple. At one level, business applications are all about productivity. However, with the march of time comes complexity. Enterprise demands ever more integration, automation and workflow. The problem is that many of today's solutions are built on old - by which I mean 10-25 year old - technologies. It's hard work making all that come together and then presenting it in pleasing ways. Ask Oracle, which is still wrestling with Fusion.

On the other hand, CXOs will tell you that work is about...work...not having fun. Hence the ban of social networking applications like Facebook by companies in the UK and elsewhere. Blanket bans, based as they are on a perceived reduction in productivity seem spot on correct in light of Sam's following argument about social networks:

But social networks aren’t aimed at anything nor are they trying to be productivity software. Still, companies keep seeing enough there to generically ask for something like that inside the Enterprise. They’re not literally asking for friending software. They just want something that makes it fun (there I said it) and easy to keep track of people. But it’s a far cry from the complete picture.

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The question then is how can software evolve to provide the kind of experience users will enjoy yet maintain productivity? I think this is the wrong argument although it is one I regularly hear. Despite his denial to the contrary, Sam is making the case. Compare for example what he is saying with the experience of Bernard Warner as reported at TimesOnLine:

Most enterprise software I’ve ever encountered seems to have one design objective: to frustrate the end user to the point of making him or her consider quitting the organisation. I’m speaking here of even the most straightforward software, the kind designed to automate tasks like totting up billable hours for a particular client or filing expense claims, the kinds of tasks we used to do with pen and paper.

Bernard then goes on to talk about expense reporting in an SAP system. Ugly. Yet this is not uncommon. Even now (or at least when I last saw it), SAP's latest Business ByDesign is hardly a model of user friendliness. Can 'we' do better?

Yes we can but not when, as Microsoft demonstrates, the vendor throws the kitchen sink at a problem and then displays it in all its glory for users to marvel at the wonder of just how much gunk developers can churn out.

Sam concludes with what he believes devlopers should be doing, asking that they:

  • Help me make decisions
  • Keep my interest
  • Make it pleasurable

    These are not unreasonable requests and ones that we are starting to see played out in the new class of so-called Enterprise 2.0 applications. Check for instance my opinion about Cover-It-Live, an extraordinarily useful helper application for interacting with many users at live events.

    There is a long way to go. Automation in business applications is a fraction of where it could be. That alone would provide some of the productivity gains CXOs crave. And while there are plenty of folk ready to extol the virtues of blogs, wikis etc in the enterprise context where are the efforts to integrate to data that keeps the business alive? Where is reliable enterprise search? (Yes, I've seen some of the cool Factiva stuff but it's a ways off yet) and where do we find prolific use of sensor technology or telemetry in enterprise? We need those things to be sorted out at least in tandem with aligning individual productivity with fun.

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