This week, TechCrunch gave some PR space to Marc Benioff, CEO Salesforce and what does he do? Asks the question: ‘Why isn’t all enterprise software like Facebook?‘ If you’ve spent any number of years in business software you’d know this is an uncomfortable question. Benioff claims that he starts his day in Facebook. Sheesh – I hope none of his friends and family have signed up for Farmville. If ever there was a webpage pollutant it is Farmville. That’s why I won’t link to it. He then goes on to assert:
Today, realtime information is possible, which has changed everything: How people consume information has changed, how people learn things about each other has changed, and how people stay current has changed. Most of all, our expectations around immediacy have changed.
Now, we need to take this idea to our businesses. We need to transform the business conversation the same way Facebook has changed the consumer conversation. Market shifts happen in real time, deals are won and lost in real time, and data changes in real time. Yet the software we use to run our enterprises is in anything but real time. We need tools that work smarter, make better use of new technology (like the mobile devices in everyone’s hands), and fully leverage the opportunities of the Internet.
This is such an oversimplification of what happens in the real world. It’s also a ham fisted effort at a major rewriting of history. Don’t get me wrong. Benioff is a master at the art of acting as the circus ringmaster and I admire him for that. Also, if he’s breathing then he’s selling and that’s what the article is attempting to do. Sometimes though you’ve just got to stop and take a sanity check.
Real-time (by which he means instant) has been with us since at least 1997. Wall Street traders have had access to real time feeds for more than 13 years. It was invented by TIBCO and was one of the principal reasons NASDAQ became so important. It allowed Vivek Ranadive, TIBCO’s CEO the opportunity to write The Power of Now, a seminal book on the topic of real-time business. It was written around the same time Benioff was thinking about starting Salesforce.com. The difference is that by that time, TIBCO had been instrumental in delivering on the real-time dream. But let’s be clear what this means. Real-time does not mean instant. It means having data upon which you can make informed decisions at the right time.
Business decisions are not based on simple one line style facts. Salesforce.com builds sales force automation software but its reporting (upon which decisions rely) is poor. There’s very little process behind it. Ask any professional what they do when they see something that’s out of whack? Investigate. Find the problem. Examine the root cause. Assemble collateral facts. Check, double check and then take action. That’s a lot of process. Simply to imply that having access to real-time (instant) data in some sort of collaborative environment is going to solve your problems is fantasy. Collapsing the time between something occurring and your ability to remedy is goodness. But for that you also need well engineered alerts. Again, another area in which TIBCO has excelled for years and which helped Harrahs to become one of the largest casino operators in the world.
Another part of what Benioff is trying to say suggests that applications need to be much simpler to use. He’s right. And to that extent we’ve already seen customers benefit from user interfaces that work the way they want them to work. But then he strays into social computing territory. It’s a minefield. An old sparring partner Charles Zedlewski weighs in on the topic. He must be pretty fired up because this is his first blog post in 18 months. His analysis is priceless. He starts:
1. Facebook is designed for entertainment, not productivity.
The more often users come to Facebook and the more time they spend there, the more they view advertisements, the more money Facebook makes.
Thus the objective behind Facebook’s design paradigm is get people to spend as much free time as possible on Facebook. To this end they have created some wonderfully addictive features: trolling through your friends’ updates, playing games, creating lists of things you like, acquiring virtual currency and thinking of witty things to say for your own status update.
I’m not so sure that “spend as much time on the site as possible” is a useful design paradigm for the enterprise. So to ask “why isn’t all Enterprise software like Facebook” is a bit like asking “why isn’t all Enterprise software like the final season of Lost.”
You can argue that social computing features infused into business offerings should be attempting to emulate the same thing i.e. keep people coming back for more. That may be correct in the consumer world but not so much in the business to business world. Charles then goes on to examine the different types of social relationships we have and why the Facebook approach doesn’t fit well into a business context. He finishes off with a question about the extent to which Facebook can realistically be compared to other productivity tools like Lotus Notes. In the alternative, he suggests that enterprise software could learn lessons from Amazon: get in, find what you want, pay, get out as fast as possible. It’s a fair point.
I give Benioff credit for throwing the Facebook comparison ball into the discussion arena. It’s been simmering for a long time but his weight behind it adds new colour. However, Benioff needs to be careful. Conflating business to business and business to consumer may well be a useful way to think about what our apps will look like in the future. And of course there are lessons to be learned that may hit the professional hard. But I’ve found that when you talk to business in those terms, it is not as intuitive a discussion as might seem obvious to others. That’s where a bit of sensitivity to the baggage of the past goes a long way.
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