Boy, did blogger Khoi Vin ever hit a collective nerve with a post about enterprise software in which he minces few words. The first sentence: "Enterprise software, it can hardly be debated, is pretty bad stuff."
Vin faults a software selection process in which user-friendly design doesn't exactly head the priority list of "information technology managers who are concerned primarily with stability, security and the continual justification of their jobs and staffs."
Vin contends that, instead of streamlining processes, its ostensible purpose, enterprise software often ends up complicating what should be simple tasks, like filing an expense report. Is it any wonder that frustrated users sometimes resort to using software not sanctioned by IT?
Consumers who don't have technology decisions foisted upon them invariably choose products with simple and elegant interfaces, which goes a long way toward explaining the success of Apple and Google.
Part of the answer, Vin suggests, could lie in ensuring that IT managers get at least some exposure to design principles early in their careers -- preferably at the student level.
Indeed, companies increasingly value "design thinking," which emphasizes creativity and user accessibility, for a broad range of business tasks. One example from a recent BusinessWeek article: Intel is assembling teams of students from Arizona State's business, engineering, and industrial and visual communication design programs to work on new products for aging baby boomers' future homes.
While added emphasis on design can't hurt, it won't be enough to address myriad issues raised by readers of Vin's post in a lengthy comment string. Among them: IT departments more concerned with ease of support than ease of use; a continued need to support legacy applications; low user expectations in an environment in which glitches are the norm; and a flawed model in which "software (is) sold by people who don't write it and purchased by people who don't use it."
Shortly after we read the Khoi Vin post, we saw one titled "What's the value in enterprise software" by ZDNet blogger Michael Krigsman. While he doesn't touch on usability, he does address another vexing issue: Is there any competitive advantage to using standard enterprise software? And if not, can companies afford to customize it? He writes:
When packaged software is used across an industry, differentiation seems to disappear. And while customization may hold the promise of differentiation through unique features and capabilities, the risks are just too high. Damned if you do and damned if you don't.
Instead of technical differentiation, companies should focus on how they can leverage a software platform's desirable features and use it to re-engineer their business processes, suggests Krigsman.
This is good advice. Yet it often gets ignored by IT departments that forget that technology is there to serve the business, not the other way around.