Upheaval or opportunity?

The trouble with this business is that, almost every day, you meet honest and well-intentioned people who have a convincing story to tell. Then you get back to the real world and realise that however decent these people are, many are fundamentally deluding themselves.

I’m not going to name names, but take a company that has a technically superb product but it was designed by programmers and information scientists with the result that it can only be used by an elite with a similar background. Or, and perhaps this is deliberate, by spending a ton of dough on training – either from the vendor or by setting up their own internal programmes.

A bit of ‘user first’ wouldn’t go amiss and it would save customers a fortune. It would also make selling easier. One suspects that it might also result in a lower price, because it would then be seen as less esoteric and easier to use.

Another organisation might think it has come up with the most cracking environment within which to work. Top to bottom integration from applications, through operating systems, down to database and hardware platform. Enterprise rollouts are the dream with shedloads of revenue pouring in each year. Such systems pay lip service to the outside world of social networking but try to trap everything within their own walled gardens. The mantra could be, "You’re safe with us."

A variation on this theme is a multi-platform version which is slightly less obsessed with the operating system lock-in bit.

Either way, the sell is seductive –  a single backside to kick. The downside is that, once trapped and committed to a particular way of working and set of standards, it’s hard to escape. You depend on the supplier to keep up and quickly incorporate the more desirable elements from the outside world.

This sort of all-encompassing approach comes at the same time as a general drift toward consolidation and centralisation and away from the distributed computer operations that we’ve become familiar with. This is driven largely by cost savings but, for public consumption, they’re frequently camouflaged with greenwash.

Counterbalancing this centralising, regaining control, kind of world of individual major vendors, you have a decentralising world of hosted services, social computing and open systems. They look like a rag bag army from a distance but get close and you find some jolly effective regiments and platoons. The challenge is to wire them together as a cost-effective whole.

SalesForce.com is the poster child for enterprise SaaS. It took one aspect of a business which could be peeled off and delivered as a service, more or less bypassing IT.

Then you have the great mass of social software where people can link up with others of common interest, both inside and outside business. Many of these are platform plays which allow others to add functionality for the glory of so-doing, rather than in the expectation of making money. Some pretty major companies have given the nod to Facebook use among employees, not least because they haven’t had to expand their computer operations to accommodate the functionality.

It’s easy for IT and business people who are used to the first world above to sneer at people from the second world. But they know that every day, in their own lives and in those of their users, that the second world is an increasing slice of their lives. Connections between people are the life blood of knowledge work and knowledge work is an ever-increasing part of our lives.

The centralisers want to embed and control the somewhat freeform nature of informal and ad hoc communications. Apart from anything else, they’d like audit trails for possible regulatory actions. (Never mind that they can’t do it with normal human interactions – in the café, down the pub, in the restaurant and on the phone.)

On the other hand, the open folk put their offerings out there and wait and see what happens. Sure, they evangelise like fury, by talking at conferences, blogging and pushing hard from their websites. But they don’t have armies of sales people. They rely on the conversational networks to spread the word. They provide free downloads and let people get on with it.

Some of them and this unnerves many, rely on unpaid developers to fix bugs and add features. They argue that real-time fixes and improvements are infinitely preferable to waiting for, and forking out for, the periodic ‘big releases’ of traditional vendors.

At some point, if ‘client’ companies get serious, they come to the provider and ask for support, hosting, education or whatever. At this point, the vendor starts to make money more or less directly proportionate to the effort they are expending. But the amount of money coming in doesn’t have to pay for a top-heavy, revenue-draining, sales force and channel. The vendor’s primary investment is in creating a robust and responsive computing and communications system which can scale to match demand.

In so many ways it seems we are at another transition point in computing history. Huge forces are demanding that we review how we run our computer operations. The open movement is challenging conventional publishing models. Broadband and mobile communications are transforming where and how many of us work. And interpersonal communications, on which so much of (western?) business depends, is moving centre-stage.

Who knows what the outcome will be? The important thing is to keep an open mind and, even if you’re presently locked in to a particular supplier, don’t stop looking at what’s going on elsewhere. And, although their demands might seem unreasonable at times, listen to your users. They are, after all, the ones doing the real work.