The difference between consumer & enterprise software

There's lots of confusion around enterprise and consumer technologies and their use models
Written by Oliver Marks, Contributor

A 'consumer' is primarily a label for any individuals or households that use goods generated within the economy.

(The 13th century early origins of the word are derived from 'squanderer' and in more recent history the word is associated with folks flocking to shopping malls, as the 1990 era artifacts in the photo above by Michael Galinsky illustrate, with modern economists claiming the more they show up and spend there the healthier the economy is).

An 'Enterprise' is comprised internally of a whole bunch of people working together to try and make enough money to go to the mall - or these days shop online - and keep a roof over their head. Organizing these people to stay motivated and focused to do the job they are supposed to and grow the business so everyone keeps their job and get paid more requires complicated technology.

Ok I'm being simplistic and facetious, but there remains a remarkable lack of understanding of the different whims and needs of the individual and the work requirements for employees to collaborate in a business.

I'll  be debating 'Pushing the Limits of the Consumerization of IT' with Robert Scoble moderated by Larry Seltzer at next month's Silicon Valley edition of the Enterprise 2.0 Conference where I'm also chair of the 'People, Culture & Internal Communications' track..here's some thoughts to kick that off.

Consumer technology is almost invariably aimed at the individual, while enterprise software caters to large and complicated organizations with many different processes and connections. Remember all those early '1.0' mobile phones with incomprehensible user interfaces - weird little icons and features that only sort of worked? Web 2.0 and mobile placed a high premium on consistency and ease of user experience, such as one click shopping on Amazon and mobile interfaces that are a pleasure to use wherever you are.  We're going through a huge technology usability revolution...but in comparison the underlying technology that powers enterprises has the complexity, security and failover requirements of multiple nuclear power stations.

These mission critical systems are the infrastructure thousands of people work on and in and are absolutely fundamental to the way businesses work and have historically been extremely clunky to use. Most consumer applications do a small number of things well, whether as a mobile app or a 2.0 website. The iPad is a whole new genre of consumption and lightweight communication device which has been in existence since April 2010, has spawned an array of competitors and is probably the current poster child for 'consumer in the enterprise'.

Apple, with their terrific hardware industrial design and styling coupled with easy to understand and use, reliable and efficient user interface and underlying operating system have led the operating system fashion pack since Microsoft's Windows Vista failed to take off after the XP generation. Apple have never been interested in the complexities and limitations of serving enterprise customers however - there is a huge, ripe market for bleeding edge consumer technologies, as the willingness to put up with short battery life on iphones in exchange for cool new features illustrates. (I have an LG mobile phone whose battery lasts for days and an iphone which on a good day lasts twelve hours: guess which one would be useful in an earthquake...)

Enterprises provision technology for enduring use and to fit a complex set of needs for a reasonable price - historically that has lead to a lot of 'check the boxes' behavior in selecting suites of products that all to often have nominal features in them to satisfy requirements. This can be not unlike those disappointing holiday gift baskets we sometimes get around this time of year - full of straw and nicely designed boxes containing tasteless, cardboardy versions of salami, cookies or whatever.

There is no question of course that the combination of broadband internet, software as a service, Cloud hosting, improved mobile connectivity and the shift to online shopping has had a massive impact on all aspects of our lives both as individuals and working together collectively, spawning ever greater access to information and publishing.

However, managing people in an enterprise is very different to within a small business, which is typically much more exposed to the 'outside world' and running on a lean profit and loss model. Large enterprises can feel like a separate universe once you're inside the culture with no sense of how the company is doing outside of corporate communications and the media.  A few years of the hierarchy, along with your budget allocation, goals from above, problems below and the internal rat race (never to be underestimated) can cause you to loose touch with 'the outside world', with many pining for a more entrepreneurial existence outside of the secure but restricted world they live in.

Drucker's fabled 'knowledge worker' - created in very different times and much referred to by academics and software marketers - is sometimes in danger of being confused with senior decision makers, who are often to be seen consuming concise information prepared for them by their underlings on ipads. Workday have done a terrific job with their new iPad app ("...Navigate the organization using Workday's unique organizational swirl to navigate the organizational structure and drill in on an individual worker’s profile. Get insight into how the business is running with interactive analytics on Workforce Planning, Compensation and Talent Management") but we are still mostly talking about using 'consumer' style apps to drill down into pre-prepared (by people living all day in Workday and other HR application), existing and meaningful information for decision makers.

The difference between origination of information and its consumption and dissemination can be dangerously blurred as anyone who has slaved over creating something and then losing the credit for it knows all to well. We have an ongoing problem with the 'social' web of information flipping - an almost manic daily easter egg hunt where people skate across the internet finding nuggets of new information and exposing it to their online networks for personal exposure and credibility building. As I write this Isaacson's biography of Steve Jobs (now available for your Kindle!) has fragmented into a million partworks on blogs: basically found-in-the-book nuggets of information on a given theme embedded across multiple pages. This isn't 'knowledge work' of course, this is good old fashioned hustling for page views.

Throwing out fashionable ideas in presentations of any type, whether your own or not, isn't new of course, but has never been easier than today whether inside companies or online. In the work environment when the going gets tough the agile have moved on in your worst case 'left holding the baby' scenario at work - we've all been there...

More fundamentally though the whole notion of 'Facebook in the enterprise' social networks inside your company relies on quality original information input by individuals for greater collaboration and not the massive social climbing frame individuals often use their external networks for. Managing people to achieve these goals - and hiring the right people to concierge the communities - is often misunderstood as an afterthought. Technology is improving in leaps and bounds around consistency and usability but never confuse that with the way we shop as individuals.

At this point in history Workday's iPad app is available free to the individual through iTunes, which has replaced several stores in the mall for 'music, movies, tv shows, apps and more' to quote Apple's website, which says a lot about where we are in the arc of commercial maturity. As a former user interface designer I'm very enthusiastic about any design work that makes life easier for those whose job revolves around an application - data entry and configuration for example. don't confuse that with drilling down into that info to consume it from an attractive dashboard on your sexy new tablet between restaurant courses. That's a whole different use case...

Photo from Malls across America series from Michael Galinsky/Kickstarter

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