Enterprise evolution

Charles Darwin said: “It is not the strongest of the species that survive, but those that are most responsive to change.” Dan Matthews, CTO at IFS, looks at how social media is changing the face of Enterprise Applications

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Our customers are being challenged by an ever more complex and demanding market and globalisation is a key driver of this change. It’s far from a new phenomenon but the economic climate has catalysed the need for businesses to look beyond stagnant domestic markets and expand operations into emerging and growing economies. As a result, the way businesses operate is increasingly complex with offices in locations all over the world, a decentralised knowledge base, global supply-chains and dispersed virtual teams that must collaborate and work together irrespective of location.

As business gets more complex, the IT applications and systems that support it need to do the exact opposite – getting easier to use and helping simplify the process of collecting and using business information. Enterprise applications are hugely powerful and yet are only as good as the information that resides within them. This means that employees of all ages at all levels of the business need to be comfortable and confident in using them in order to maximise the benefits. User resistance can be a big contributor to IT project failure and a lot of this comes down to a poor user experience of dated, clunky user interfaces. In order to get people using business applications you have to make interacting and engaging with them more satisfying.

Evolving expectations
In parallel to this growing business need, user expectations have irrevocably changed – having a direct impact on enterprise application development. This usability evolution can be attributed largely to the internet where any solution has to be so intuitive that it can be used without prior training or knowledge, and the phenomenal uptake of social and online media.

Users are now accustomed to the highly simplified but very powerful applications they encounter on the web and are wondering why their enterprise tools can not look and feel the same way. Any interface they use must be familiar and comfortable, they expect it to be intuitive and if it falls short of their expectations they will quickly lose patience.

After all, one of the key reasons for installing enterprise software is to simplify the running of business processes so that decision making can be improved. In order to better understand what users were looking for from Enterprise applications, last year we commissioned an international survey of more than 1,000 business IT users looking specifically at usability.

We identified a fundamental need for better-designed business applications that incorporate elements like search, networking, easy navigation and individualisation. Over a third of respondents identified the web as providing the most intuitive user experience with only one in five citing business applications used in the workplace as easy to use. Sixty-five percent of respondents said usability was a primary or secondary factor for selecting their enterprise software – defining usability in terms of how much a software tool makes it easier to do their job and the degree to which that tool can be immediately understood.

Adapting to our environment
It therefore makes sense to embrace the design, look and feel of the consumer applications that are proving the most popular. In particular it makes sense to use the familiar principles of how people use the internet since after all the internet and business applications have one thing in common – they are both too large for any one person to fully comprehend. In July 2009, we launched IFS Enterprise Explorer (IEE) aimed specifically at meeting this need: provide a rich internet application front-end for IFS Applications.

IEE uses familiar concepts from web browsers and a thinking that “less is more” to create a user interface that is intuitive to pick up and productive to use. We worked with a number of our existing customers in the development process – adding new navigation technologies such as adaptable link pages, contextual breadcrumb navigation, and visual recent screens to make it easier for users to find their way around the application. A “Google-like” search function uses keywords rather than complex queries and built-in collaboration tools such as rich media notes and task management makes it easier to track activity. In-application document viewing for common file types such as PDF and Word and single-click integration with Office applications was also added as well as an ability to integrate mashups and other web content in line with what our customers wanted.

Enterprise applications across the board have to evolve and continue to get easier to use. The web has set the standard for usability and by embracing this enterprise players will increase adoption and speed up ROI for businesses the world-over – doing our industry a great service in the process. Just like we use modern communication and networking tools like Messenger, Skype and Facebook, to stay in contact with families and friends across the globe, we can benefit from using the same tools in our virtual teams at work. The difference though is that in the work context these capabilities must be tightly integrated with the information and processes that we deal with in our professional lives. With communication in virtual teams being digital there is an excellent opportunity to capture not just the result, but also the “why and how” that result was achieved.

Imagine two engineers discussing the design of a new engine. A couple of years later, when it is time to improve on that engine design, the people now working on it can go back and see not just the design made, but also the discussions back and forth that explains the why and how. However for this to be possible the digital communication needs to be preserved and associated with the business objects (such as the engine design) and processes it relates to. This is a very strong case for why enterprise applications, where the business objects and processes already exist, should have a strong integration with social media and digital communications solutions.

Natural selection
At the start of the year analyst firm IDC predicted that “the crumbling of the business/personal wall in IT will accelerate as the economy and the 2.0 culture drive consumer and business technology together, opening new opportunities and threatening to create new IT industry dinosaurs”. It is safe to say this prediction was an accurate one and the most progressive enterprise applications have already begun to emulate the web and embrace consumer-led application design. Those that adapt their products the quickest will become the users’ natural selection in this evolutionary process and will avoid IDC’s label of ‘IT dinosaur’. As Darwin said: “It is not the strongest of the species that survive, but those that are most responsive to change.”