The False Dichotomy of Enterprise Software

Why are we stuck in a box? Why don’t we see true innovation in Enterprise Software solutions?

In 1994 when I was in college (yes, I’m that old), I remember a software expert coming to talk to us about the world of MRP and MRP II. He showed us a demo of a system and was totally excited about the possibilities of automating different enterprise functions that would make businesses much more productive. The two decades that followed proved him right – enterprise did become much more productive and automated.

But you know how you look at your clunky phone from three years ago and can’t figure out how the heck you put up with this awful-looking device? The sad news is that the demo I saw in 1995 was a grey-looking version of most of the ERP and CRM systems we have running in organizations today.

So here’s the thing. For some reason, we don’t apply the above phone judgment to the world of Enterprise Software solutions. Why is that? Is it because our expectations from Enterprise Software are so low?

Did we get used to the small, incremental software improvements we get once a year that usually make the system even more clunky and convoluted?

Did we give up hope of actually enjoying our software work tools?

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I think the answers to the questions above are yes, yes and…yes.

It’s like the world of Enterprise Software is in a box, waiting for someone to think outside of it. Like the world of phones before the iPhone and the world of Internet search before the Google bar.

I am sorry to say, but in the realm of Enterprise Software we are in a dark, damp, stinky box. It’s been closed for so long that we got used to the smell. We got used to the insipid feeling when we open our office computers dreading the idea of another 8-hour day in front of this thing.

People build tools to make themselves more productive. Whenever I buy myself a better screwdriver or drill at Home Depot or ACE, I feel good. I feel smarter and more advanced. The softer grip, the new trigger mechanism, and the new fastening feature all make me feel better regardless of the fact that the hole in the wall is still the same.

So why are we stuck in that box? Why don’t we see true innovation in Enterprise Software?

In my view it is because of a false dichotomy. In consumer software, we have narrow scope applications that do one or two things really well. The maps app takes me places, the errands app tells me what to do next and the audible app reads my books to me. ERP and CRM systems are functional behemoths compared to those apps. Their functional scope is much broader and the activities performed on those systems are more complex.

So, the inescapable result is awful-looking, field-filled screens trying to present and capture as much data as possible, right? Isn’t that the nature of more complex tools?

No, it is not.

This “Complicated or Easy” dichotomy is false and was extensively explained by Donald Norman.

Complicated can and should be easy. To generalize even further, complex does not necessarily mean complicated, the same as simple does not necessarily mean easy. Easier said than done, but it can and it is being done. Software vendors have to merge the worlds of software engineering and user experience design in new and better ways. Complex enterprise systems represent a bigger experience design challenge, a tough problem of enabling productivity while taking into account the users’ sense of pride while using their tools.

The “step function improvement” leaps are usually spurred by a new way of thinking about a problem, a new technology or just a new approach to things.

The world of Enterprise Software is complex but it doesn’t have to be complicated and a nightmare to work with. We should strive for complex and easy.

A new breed of Enterprise Software solutions is emerging, which offers new types of experiences. They solve complex problems in an easy way.  Companies like BoxZendesk and, of course, Base offer a new level of work tools that are robust yet easy to work with.

At Base we have one thing on our mind – the experience. We believe that the art and the science of hiding complexity, minimizing user inputs and designing beautiful interfaces will result in dramatically better user adoption of Enterprise Software tools. The recipients of the data will still get their nice reports – that is not the real problem. User adoption defines the quantity and quality of the data being processed, and that is the hard part to master.

I believe that we are going to see a major shift in Enterprise Software sooner rather than later. The technologies we need in order to deal with enterprise functionality and process complexity in new ways are here.

We just need some box openers. I think Base is opening a pretty big box called CRM.

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