Can the Enterprise be Consumerized?

Posted in Technology, Thoughts, Work

The buzzword for the past 2-3 years – ever since people affirmed that smartphones and tablets are kind of a big deal – is that the office will have to adapt and ultimately cater to its workers’ home computing setups. The consumerization of the enterprise has manifested in newly minted BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) policies, and the software and interface standards pioneered by consumer electronics will set the bar for technology at work.

Of course, if your software sample consisted of business staples like email, spreadsheets and presentations, this trend demonstrably true.

But there are still plenty of crappy, old, horribly designed and built computing systems and services that businesses rely on. In fact, I’m skeptical that the enterprise can be meaningfully “consumerized”: the application is too limited and the functionality is too complicated.

The first hurdle for companies to build good software for itself is getting the right people for the task. For non-software companies, this is hard: top talent is already scarce, and the culture (not to mention the role, pay, and importance) isn’t as attractive as companies that are focused on software development. Once in a while, there are efforts like Walmart Labs by established firms that do show a respect and investment in technology, but instances are few and far in between.

Suppose that the right combination of product folk, designers and engineers are found and enticed to work on enterprise software, the next issue is one of scale; business software does not scale anywhere as well as consumer software, simply because there aren’t as many users. This is true of any company building internal software – while everybody recognizes its importance and potential for efficiency, there never enough people devoted to coding these systems, much less polishing them to the standards of consumer-facing products. Its benefits are going to be limited by the number internal users.

So even if the company is huge, and it has determined that the investment to build consumer-grade software for its workers is economically sound, the final challenge is appeasing power users. Much of the value of business software is in its custom logic and modeling, and most of the useful functionality is complex and not easily distilled to the clean and simple interfaces we expect out of consumer software. Having built B2B software for most of my career, I kept coming across requirements that took a lot of effort just for gathering the backend pieces, with no solution to streamline the frontend. Professional tools are unapologetically complex, and well-intentioned attempts to “consumerize” previously flexible software can easily end up alienating users, e.g., Final Cut Pro X.

Despite the hype, enterprise software is as it always has been: mostly legacy, ugly, hard to use more often than not, and can possibly encapsulate the company’s competitive advantages (when compared to the competitors’ even worse software offerings). The current trend of consumerization is at this point only skin-deep, which means there’s a ton of opportunities for growth and iteration. If there’s anything exciting about enterprise development, it’s that the bar can be raised – so much higher.