Commuting into work can feel like travelling back in time. Over morning coffee you can use your smart phone to read a personalised news stream, check the weather, broadcast yourself, see a graph of how long and how well you slept, and a thousand other things. Arriving in the office, you are confronted by a plethora of hard-to-use systems with poor functionality that don’t talk to each other. Corporate IT from a user perspective is years – if not decades – behind what we experience as consumers. Consumer IT offers a better experience, more functionality, more choice, and a higher innovation rate. And it does so at lower cost. Businesses can spend many thousands of dollars per employee every year on technology that underwhelms, whereas consumers can access thousands of apps for a few dollars. Surely business can learn something from consumer IT?
Of course there are some good reasons why business IT is lagging behind. Firstly, business applications need to be more robust and secure. A consumer app that fails may cause annoyance and frustration, but the consequences of a business application failing can be far more damaging e.g., if accounting software fails to collect receivables. As a result, corporate applications can require lengthy and expensive testing before they ‘go live’. Secondly, most corporate applications need to be integrated into a complex legacy environment that has been built up over the years or decades. This often prevents applications working together seamlessly and adds to the costs and risks of making changes to systems. Finally, corporates have multiple competing demands for IT investment that need to reconciled within a limited budget, with the result that many mediocre systems are kept in service, if they are deemed ‘fit for purpose’.
Despite these challenges, businesses can still take some important lessons from the recent explosion in the quantity and quality of consumer applications:
1. Start with platforms not with applications. The Google and Apple eco-systems have fostered thousands of innovative, functional and cheap apps. But these apps would not exist without the Android and IOS platforms that enable rapid, low-cost development, and hence allow entrepreneurs to take the risk to develop an app. Businesses should follow this lead and build (or buy) platforms on which to assemble applications. Businesses know from bitter experience that the applications they build may last several decades. And no business can predict what its customers or users need in future years. So much better to create a platform that supports rapid innovation and that can stand the test of time. For example, one bank has created a secure app-store like environment which allows developers to quickly build and deploy new apps to customers.
2. Improve the quality and adoption of standards. Developers who build for consumer platforms are tied by strict standards that, for example, ensure data security. In addition, defacto standards have emerged e.g. adding Facebook and Twitter links to pages. These standards bring important benefits for developers and users alike. They lower the cost of development by providing pre-packaged interfaces, make apps more intuitive for users (e.g. by putting features in familiar places on the screen) and enhance functionality by allowing seamless data sharing between apps. Businesses should take another look at their standards. All businesses have standards for applications and data, but too often they are insufficiently prescriptive and poorly adopted, leading to high complexity and poor interoperability. Adoption of standards can be improved through technical controls (e.g., data only accessible through controlled interface), tighter governance (e.g., architect sign-off) and stronger incentives (e.g., high end toolkits for developers)
3. Decentralise innovation. Apple and Google provide the platforms, but innovation comes from a rich eco-systems of app developers who are able to originate and perfect ideas at a rate that no single organisation could match. In contrast, many businesses try to centralise IT innovation, for example in the IT or strategy teams. Once platforms and standards are in place, firms can empower business users to build their own apps, safe in the knowledge that the environment fosters interoperability and limits risk. Firms can also ‘crowd-source’ apps by releasing the platform to external developers.
4. Strive for beauty. Consumer apps developers use the word ‘beauty’ to describe how an app should feel to the end user. Beautiful apps are aesthetically pleasing and highly intuitive, and hence more likely to succeed in a market where consumer expectations are high. Few corporate apps could be described as beautiful, and in truth few firms would care about that. But beauty matters in the corporate world too, as apps which meet this benchmark will be adopted more readily, require less investment in training, and drive fewer costly user errors.
5. The end user is the only source of truth. Developers of consumer apps know that there is no substitute for end-user testing, and build frequent (sometimes hourly) testing into their development processes. Total re-writes are often required to incorporate customer feedback. Some businesses have adopted agile development methodologies which demand more frequent user involvement. However, many business app developments don’t get intense user feedback until late in the process, at which point changes other than cosmetic tweaks are too expensive to make. Firms should take another look at their development methodologies, ensuring that the user is 100% happy with the look, feel and functionality of the app before the more expensive work (typically integration with legacy systems) commences.
6. Let the market decide. Consumers get a choice of competing apps for any particular function. The market over time decides which apps succeed and which fail, aided by user ratings and best seller lists. In some corporate contexts, it will too expensive to develop competing apps. However, where platforms are in place to support decentralised low-cost innovation, competing applications can be an effective way to discover what works best.
7. Maximize economies of scale. One reason that consumer technology offers great bang for the buck is that the cost of platform development (e.g., IOS + App store) is spread across millions of users. Businesses can realise some of the same benefits by using third party software and services where possible. Historically, this meant using off-the-shelf packages that were often inflexible and hard to integrate. However, more granular services (e.g., data feeds) and flexible toolkits can now be bought and integrated into in-house development without compromising overall flexibility.
Implementing these ideas is neither quick nor easy. Changes are required to technology, sourcing, organisation, governance and skills. But firms that have learned the lessons from consumer IT are starting to realise significant benefits, and others will surely follow.