What are the unique fundamentals of the collaboration, content, and digital workplace space that make it unique? I don’t mean what the current trends are – we write a lot about that. What are the core “prime movers” of the space that have shaped it since the beginning and will continue to shape it going forward? Over the holiday break my thoughts wandered to contemplating what it is about my domain of expertise that makes it interesting.
I’m sure every technology domain has its own unique fundamentals that makes is fascinating to those that are immersed in it. I can really only speak to digital workplace since that’s where I’ve been for most of the last 20+ years in one form or another. I hope other analysts pick up the challenge to describe, trends aside, what the prime movers of their domains are.
I can think of two fundamentals that make collaboration, content, and the higher order “digital workplace” unique.
Systems of Choice
As much as I believe in communication, collaboration, content (3CS), I have to admit that (competitive imperatives aside) they are often optional. Email, calendaring, and maybe web conferencing have made the leap to required, but in most organizations you can survive while ignoring team workspaces, enterprise file syncing, co-authoring, or whatever other fancy technology rolls around. I’m not saying you should, but you probably could.
The proof is in the number of inquiries my peers and I get on “adoption”. In fact, it’s one of the hottest topics I’ve had since SharePoint came out, and in 2017 it even kicked into a higher gear. I don’t think analysts covering sales automation get a lot of calls on end user adoption. Getting organizations to adopt it or getting users to use it properly, sure. For systems of necessity it’s more a matter of degree or quality of usage rather than literally whether you ever open it up. But in sales you are out of a job if you don’t use the provided systems to get your leads or record your sales.
This fundamental results in fascinating dynamics for 3CS/DW. It launches metrics, training, PR campaigns, and all means of cajoling to get users hooked on the system. Network effects juice the payoff that organizations get by increasing adoption.
Another interesting dynamic of these being “optional” systems is that I believe it increases the expectations for ease of use of these systems. While the ERP, CRM, and financial systems closer to the cash flow of a business obviously have to be high quality, they will get used regardless. I’ve used all sorts of horribly designed systems I was required to use – I grumbled but I still used them. If they had been systems of choice I would have dropped them in a heartbeat.
I used to be a computer game designer before moving to corporate IT so I got to see first hand the difference between systems of choice and systems of necessity. I remember a meeting of the UI standards committee at a credit card company I worked for where I got into a verbal skirmish with the architect of the system used by call center agents. I had proposed a UI guideline and the call center architect giggled a bit and asked “where did you get that idea, from a game?”. Yes. “Then why should I listen to you?” he sneered, confident in his design abilities since he owned the most highly used system in the company. I told him “Because people used to pay me to use my systems. We have to pay them to use yours.”
That’s the difference between systems of necessity and systems of choice in a nutshell. And it will always drive an array of colorful behaviors like the mating dance of Birds of Paradise to attract users.
Call it nonroutine, undefined, tacit … the point is you’re rolling out tools when you don’t actually know what you’ll do with them!
Task-specific applications are designed for a definable job that happens frequently enough it’s worth coding it yourself or for a company to develop it for sale. “Accounts receivable” is a well known process and has many ready-to-use (or customize) implementations.
General purpose applications, like spreadsheets or wikis, are used across industries and job roles. A spreadsheet can be used to create a simple balance sheet, manage a CD collection, data entry forms, or even as artwork or games.
When a task is unique enough it isn’t worth a vendor’s time to create it or IT to code it, general purpose applications are your last resort.
That makes it uniquely difficult for a vendor to pin down exactly which features should go into these tools. It distinguishes your more innovative and creative employees who can figure out new and useful ways to leverage them. And – just as a bonus – it flusters your financial folks who try to calculate the benefit of products that help with ephemeral tasks. Actual costs and unknown benefits don’t fit well into ROI calculators!
Yes, I sometimes envy the exactitude of requirements in other domains or the ability to foist whatever product is picked onto hapless users. Of course I know other domains, from ERP to networking, have bits of choice and nonroutine elements and numerous challenges that digital workplace folks don’t have to deal with. But grokking the fundamentals of each domain is a great way to understand and predict which challenges lie ahead.