There is a discussion around the Internet about making enterprise applications work more like consumer applications. What the proponents mean is that applications should look like the ones that run on smart-phones and tablets.
While I appreciate the need to re-engineer the user experience of enterprise software, I am beginning to wonder how much of the discussion is really only a marketing or promotional veneer for some people. What I have not seen covered or appreciated are the deep structural issues that differentiate enterprise and consumer applications.
Let’s first accept that the differences between individuals and business matter. Individuals are like a single cell, whereas a business is like a complex organism. A business is a highly complex society, with rules and practices, as well as a body of knowledge made from the contributions of many people. An individual does not have the complexity or the rules but does have a body of knowledge. How that knowledge is updated is also an important difference. Individuals modify it implicitly through the natural and adaptive process of learning. Businesses have to do it explicitly through periodic strategy reviews and training sessions.
When new or different software is introduced to a business, people not only have to learn how the software works, they also have to understand how it fits into the other processes and operations of the business, so they have to be taught how the software applies in their specific case. The same thing happens for new employees; they just can’t be let loose on the software, they have to learn the rules and practices of the organisation and how the software applies to that.
Now let’s look at the differences between consumer and enterprise applications. All the consumer applications have been written with a single function in mind. This does not apply to enterprise software. When the early enterprise solutions were initially developed, they were done so with the purpose of enabling a specific functionality. There was software for MRP, others for accounting, etc. But over the years, organisations found it easier to use software that combined various functions, and modern enterprise solutions like ERP grew. Consequently, enterprise systems are now diverse, multi-functional and highly complex pieces of software. That presents a problem if you want to make them like consumer applications – it’s like trying to mix oil and water.
I’m not ruling out that a Zuckerberg-like person may one day create a revolutionary user interface and experience for enterprise applications. At the moment I just struggle to see how it can be done.