Can Google OneBox put the Joy back in Enterprise Applications?

(August 24 2006) Update: Podcasts are now available of the sessions from the symposium.

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Last week Dave Girouard from Google Enterprise Services spoke at the 2006 MIT Sloan CIO Symposium.
His talk was entitled “Arming the Innovators: How Consumers have changed the game for IT.”

His basic argument:

  • Consumer technology is driving innovation today – because it is fundamentally usable, while enterprise IT applications are getting less usable over time.
  • The modern enterprise is driven by “Self-Directed Innovators” who need unfettered access to information.
  • Google technology (Enterprise Search appliance, One Box) provides an interface to enterprise information that is so usable (like consumer technology) it will bring joy to those self-directed innovators.

In what follows, I recap Girouard’s presentation in a bit more detail and then use it as the occasion to consider two questions:

  1. Is the higher percieved usability and massive interest in google apps, including Gmail, Google Maps, Google Calendar, and related apps from Google and other providers, a sign of the fact that they are better meeting the needs of enterprise users?
  2. Will the increased availabilty of web-based alternatives which can be chosen with little to no involvement of centralized IT purchasing committees fundamentally change the role of the CIO and Enterprise IT?

First, to recap: Why is consumer technology more effective at user-focused innovation and usability?

Where consumer technology is based on choice – users buy what they like – enterprise apps are chosen by someone else (often a whole committee of someones) on the behalf of the folks who will actually use it. Put simply, the user is not the purchaser. Their needs and desires are “taken into careful consideration” by IT and the the purchasing or procurement team.

In addition, business applications tend to be designed by experts for experts. Every additional piece of functionality added means another checkbox checked on a purchasing evaluation grid – regardless of whether anyone can learn to use it without weeks of training and a 300 page user manual (no longer hard copy, but available in PDF on the install CD). The net effect is that enterprise applications become less user friendly over time.

Girouard then turned to search as an example. Google’s search has evolved over time into an “über command-line-interface to the entire universe.” With a radically simple interface it provides access to all kinds of different information. (one anecdote he shared related to early focus groups they offered Google to. Users sat and waited, without doing anything. Turns out they were “waiting for the page to load,” assuming the presence of all that white space meant it wasn’t done. This is the real origin of the copyright line at the bottom – to show the user the page has loaded).

Try typing a fed-ex tracking number, or a phrase like “Weather Lincoln NE” or “Inconvenient Truth Boston” into the search box on Google, and notice how it disambiguates, identifies your query as having a particular kind of meaning, and provides results based on what it has determined – all in addition to the plain old web search results which follow it.

Compare that experience to the average enterprise user’s experience with trying to locate information in the enterprise. There is truly no joy in enterprise search. From Girouard’s perspective this reflects the failure of tagging, taxonomy, and enterprise content management to scale.

So why does it matter if enterprise search fails, or is frustrating to end users?

Girouard argues that in the 21st century, access to info is really the core of competitive differentiation.
The ability to differentiate now, based purely on “process improvement” and “business process outsourcing” is already past – that was the 1990s version.

In the new model, enterprises should focus on the “Self-Directed innovators” who truly drive innovation.

These self-directed innovators are characterized by the following:

  • They are not process driven
  • They are deeply collaborative: across and outside the company, with a broad network
  • They have intermingled their personal and professional lives
  • They need access to information anywhere (not just at the desk) and anytime (not just 9-5)
  • They don’t spend most of the day in a single app or environment
  • They’re impatient and easily frustrated

The nut, Girouard suggested, is that Google’s enterprise search technology can provide your self-directed innovators with the information they need, when they need it, through an interface which has proven itself immensely popular with end users: the google search box. Access to all the information in the enterprise – including portions requiring authentication and authorization – can be as simple and accessible as the world’s information is in Google

To return to the questions with which I began:

Is the higher percieved usability and massive interest in google apps, including gmail, google maps, and the new google spreadsheet, a sign of the fact that they are better meeting the needs of enterprise users?

I can’t help but wonder if the leap being made here is too simple. I love (well, I like them anyway) Gmail and Google Maps, and use both on a regular basis. But they simply are not trying to solve the same kinds of problems that an ERP, CRM, ECM, or other three-letter-acronym enterprise application is trying to solve.

Is the increased usability of the google interface made possible by the fact that it is addressing a relatively constrained problem domain?

Is consumer technology more innovative – more joyful – because it is doing things which are simply more fun?

Girouard’s presentation used a photo of an iPod as an example of consumer joy and rapid adoption. Well, no matter how much I like my enterprise applications, they simply are not as “fun” as my iPod because, well, they’re for doing work, where the iPod is for relaxing, rocking out, showing off my aesthetic sensibilities, and other self-indulgent, non-company-supporting activities.

To put it another way, if using business applications were this much fun we wouldn’t call it work.

This isn’t to suggest, of course, that ease of use isn’t a fundamental issue in enterprise applications – it certainly is, and I think Girouard is spot on in highlighting the role that the vendor/purchasing department dance (RFPs, checklists, committees and all) has to play in that problem. But to compare the adoptions rates of free-to-me services like Gmail and just-for-fun appliances like the iPod to serious business applications is an unfair comparison.

One could argue that Gmail is serving a function as complex as enterprise email systems are, until you consider the integration enterprise email systems have to directories, to provisioning systems, to departmental organizational structures, to compliance, backup, and records retention systems – none of which Gmail is integrated with.

Will the increased availabilty of web-based alternatives which can be chosen with little to no involvement of centralized IT purchasing committees fundamentally change the role of the CIO and Enterprise IT?

There was a really interesting moment in Girouard’s presentation, where he paused on a slide featuring CIO magazine senior editor and blogger Ben Worthen, referring to a blog post in which Worthen declared “I’m violating our corporate email policy . . . and loving it.” Worthen’s since written more about this experiment in the magazine (The Enterprise Gets Googled) and in a later blog post (Google and the CIO). In his CIO editorial, Worthen writes:

The move to online computing will change the relationship between CIOs and users. Just as accessing applications over the Web will give CIOs more flexibility to find the best fit for their businesses, their employees will enjoy that same flexibility in finding the applications that are best for them. In the Google-future, IT will be more scalable, agile and cost-effective. But it will also be less controllable by CIOs. This will require CIOs to adopt a new mind-set for how they manage the use of IT in their company. Those who succeed will be free to focus on driving innovation; those who fail will be fighting a battle they’re destined to lose.

This tension, between the agility, cost-effective delivery, and flexibility this promises and the loss of control it threatens was what caused the odd moment. (In my former life in a graduate school Literature department I might have called it an aporia).
As Girouard was discussing this post as a kind of example of end user choice, as opposed to purchasing/IT control, he was careful to reassure the assembled crowd (ostensibly CIOs themselves) that Google wasn’t inciting rebellion – of course, he reminded us, Google isn’t suggesting that end users within corporations violate company policies. We well know that such policies exist for good reason and need to be followed. But it is an interesting example of the tension. (Note I did not record the session, so I’m not putting his words in quotes but I think this is consistent with what he said).

The odd part was that these statements felt entirely disconnected from the rest of the presentation – as though he were trying to point the way towards the kind of “less controllable by CIOs” environment Worthen describes, but also wanted to keep a “CIO-control-friendly” pose.

Perhaps the explanation is that the Google Enterprise services – including the OneBox technology he was demoing – actually do require centralized IT planning and deployment, since they need to connect into enterprise business application databases to get the kinds of information access those self-directed innovators need.

It is likely, I think, we will see a pendulum swing back in the direction of centralized IT control, and bans of the use of applications like Gmail, as enterprises begin to recognize that many of their internal users are pushing the envelope in their use of such services – but hopefully we will also see some of the lessons learned from such applications being leveraged in enterprise apps acquired, developed, or assembled within the confines of the corporate policies.

But now I need a good long dose of time to go listen to my iPod and read Bloglines – let me know what you think in the comments.


  1. Immediately on publishing this, I returned to my email and found a link to this story on Dr. Dobb’s: Is Centralized IT Killing Innovation?

    It starts off as follows:

    Widespread user adoption of familiar, often free consumer-oriented Web tools has left IT professionals scrambling to balance permissiveness and paternalism. Fact is, workers like consumer technologies–whether instant messaging, E-mail from Yahoo or Microsoft with abundant storage, information-sharing sites, or handy Web apps–often better than the tech tools their companies prescribe. At the same time, employees shouldn’t be allowed to download the latest Google beta just because they can. System security and management are still critical considerations, often with legal and regulatory teeth behind them.

    But if IT pros are seen only as “The Ones Who Say No,” they risk surrendering their roles as innovators.

  2. There’s also a presentation by Matthew Glotzbach, who works with David Girouard at Google Enterprise Services, available here.

    It’s from the Collaborative Technologies Conference, which was also in Boston the same week as the Sloan CIO Symposium.

    You can’t see the slides in the video, but it sounds as though he’s speaking from the same deck. He’s a bit less cautious about CIO control, and leans more toward the employee-as-consumer.

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