What the enterprise can learn from consumer technologies

Hone your competitive edge by appropriating what it takes to win over end-users in the consumer space

Today’s corporate end-users are far more tech-savvy than their productivity with IT tools indicates. After all, screen-deep in IMs, widgets, and elaborate consumer Web apps, they’re proving themselves well-versed in the production and distribution of content as facilitated by the consumer Web 2.0 craze.

Yet to surface this hidden expertise in an enterprise setting requires a deeper understanding of what draws end-users to these technologies and how these consumer technologies are reshaping end-users’ tech expectations in the workplace.

[ See  the slideshow: What IT can learn from consumer tech ]

It’s with this proposition in mind that we take a look at a bevy of consumer tech winners -- and one high-profile dud -- in an effort to help IT capitalize on the ongoing Web 2.0 adoption curve in the consumer space. After all, the consumer market has long been a proving and training ground for technologies that later hone the enterprise’s competitive edge.

So, take a tip from these seemingly lowbrow technologies, tap the interests and acumen your end-users are developing, and put the consumer-tech proving ground to work to create a more collaborative and productive enterprise.

YouTube
When YouTube was founded in February 2005, few thought it would work. Video delivery on the Web was spotty, and previous video-sharing sites had failed miserably. Yet, 20 months later, when Google bought YouTube for $1.6 billion, the site was a household word, serving more than 100 million clips a day.

Enterprises developing Web-based apps, especially those aimed at culling content from end-users, would be wise to take a cue from YouTube’s success. Not only has the site bucked convention by not forcing viewers to watch ads before each clip, it has also tapped the Flash Player format, enabling clips to roll right away without launching a separate player. Respecting users’ time does more than just increase productivity; it ensures they will return to your app, time and again -- vital when the tool’s purpose is to tap users for contributions and maximize the impact and reach of their knowledge.

Furthermore, YouTube hasn’t been picky about upload formats, encouraging a wide range of contributions, from grainy cell phone clips to high-end digital productions. Also essential to stoking a critical mass of content, YouTube deftly combined the masses’ desire for self-expression with semipro content such as the early hit “The Evolution of Dance,” uploaded by an established performer.

Enterprises building collaboration portals or knowledge management systems would do well to emulate YouTube not only by encouraging contributions with as few restrictions as possible but also by actively reaching out to key early adopters to prime the pump. Once the content gets rolling, give users multiple, easy ways to navigate -- including relevancy gauges such as number of previous views -- to help them make the most of it.

But before you pack your portal with functionality, take note. YouTube also shows the importance of a simple focus. Despite the temptation to keep adding features, focus can drive usage, while clutter often dampens it.

-- David L. Margulius

iPod
People who live in dense urban areas or who work in turbulent environments are more likely to seek insulation from highly unpredictable stimulation. Or so a series of informal surveys I’ve undertaken on iPod use suggests.

A hit for its excellent design and UI that transcends electronics’ craptastic norm, the iPod lets those who are getting more stimulus than they can handle immerse themselves in content of their choosing, buffered from the intrusion of others’ thoughts or taste -- a comforting pod of personal, predictable choice.

Contemporary workplaces are riddled with stimulation (predictable and otherwise) that derails productivity. E-mail pinging, IM, arm-waving, and impromptu meetings all pull workers out of “the zone.” And because every interruption costs workers an estimated 20 minutes of productivity, workplaces where contributors are pinged three times an hour are perfect black holes that zero out productivity altogether.

So take a tip from iPod affinity, and design selective insulation into facilities and systems. Most engineers and developers, for example, need more insulation (give them offices), while successful help desk staff generally need to interact more (where cube farms work better). For insulation seekers, a daily two-hour “no-interruption period” when incoming communications are blocked or ignored is something I’ve had immense success with as a manager. Caution, though: People who tend to buffer themselves too much are less likely to attain information they could not glean from other sources, to synthesize, ergo, to create and learn.

On the app side, the iPod’s success suggests that highly customizable programs that allow for an element of personal taste are more likely to make end-users feel invested in using them. Systems that deliver have-it-your-way portals or dashboards are fast becoming essential. And it doesn’t hurt to inject a little cool. Attractive, usable software isn’t hard to design, and it usually pays for the front-loaded extra work within a few days of deployment.

-- Jeff Angus

TiVo
Digital video recorders have forever changed TV viewing habits. TiVo, the product now synonymous with “digitally recording TV,” has led the charge -- outlasting rivals such as ReplayTV in part due to a trouble-free setup and a novice-friendly UI.

In addition to features for time shifting, powering through uneventful content, and multitasking, TiVo’s appeal has been fostered by value-added facilities for content filtering. Its search mechanisms sift metadata to auto-record programming and reduce missed opportunities -- an intelligence yet to be widely implemented in competing boxes.

IT departments can take a cue from TiVo in an effort to ensure that relevant data gets channeled to the right people at the right time by giving employees greater control over the contextual flow.

Reports and analytics juiced by this proactive science are already cropping up in BI products such as Hyperion System 9. Desktop alert subscriptions and an intuitive Smartspace UI allow knowledge workers to tune to custom data channels. SaaS controls for BI will soon be big business.

Enterprise RSS readers, such as Attensa Feed Server and Attensa for Outlook, also help tune and prioritize feed streams. Much like TiVo’s user-controlled program weightings and suggestions, Attensa prioritizes internal and external data based on user behavior, monitoring activities such as feed selections and time spent reading a feed, as well as articles tagged, deleted, and forwarded. Weighted rankings then push key data to the top of your workgroup’s display stack.

Behind the scenes, network backup could benefit from TiVo reliability -- specifically D2D (disk-to-disk) backup. As costs for hardware have fallen, the idea of tossing tapes while improving access times looks appealing. Yet existing tape solutions don’t always play well with disk backups. D2D must be better integrated -- even TiVo offers backward compatibility to VCRs.

Much can be gleaned from TiVo’s operating model, as well. Poor QA testing has seen TiVo pushing broken software updates to users. And its dire customer service efforts could fill a playbook on how not to run a call center. So take heed: Technology alone provides no insurance marker in Enterprise 2.0.

If well applied, however, user-subscribed access to smart-filtered business data -- delivered how and when it’s needed -- can hone efficiency, insight, and thus your company’s competitive edge.

-- James R. Borck

Netflix
Convenience trumps everything for the end-user. Add a soupçon of fun, and you have a killer app.

Netflix is the prototype for this rule. Having stepped into a field of competitors built on low price through volume as the One True Faith, Netflix is succeeding by delivering superior convenience. IT would be wise to consider how investments in convenience can stimulate superior levels of productivity.

To make the low-price model work, you have to strip out all costs related to people or product quality, getting rid of “cost centers” such as customer service and technical support. What you can’t cut you foist onto the customer; for the remainder, you hire the cheapest replaceable slackers you can. It’s an empty, industrial experience for both customer and staff. And once you start, you can’t change -- strip-mining is your brand.

The bulk of IT dollars spent in the past decade has been focused on this “more with less” cult crud, not qualitative improvements. “Lean and mean” systems designed to squeeze out costs or dump IT effort onto end-users are undermining organizations in the same way that the practices of video-store chains have, saving immediate dollars but eroding suppleness. And staff tasked with supporting these systems under the “more with less” mantra will be as desultory as Blockbuster clerks.

Netflix is applying technology to add value to process. For example, its catalog app allows buyers to easily surface titles they might have forgotten or never knew existed. If someone wants to see every movie Helen Mirren ever made (omit Bob Guccione's Caligula, trust me), the front end makes it easy. Exploration is part of the “product” customers pay for. The feature that delivers the most convenience, the ability to create a list of rentals in advance, is also fun, allowing customers to curate and anticipate their own private film festivals. Rather than making the search for the next cinematic escape an industrial grind, it’s almost entertainment itself.

IT should make a Netflix push, developing and delivering systems that disavow the “more with less” soul-suck mentality and instead increase the quality of the organization’s results. Providing end-users with features geared toward convenience -- especially those that integrate functionality with fun -- will make them more productive.

More knowledge management, more interactive BI and BPM, better online education, better solutions to deliver more timely service and support. It’s not hard to do. Just stop thinking like a big-box strip miner and start thinking like Netflix.

-- Jeff Angus

Flickr
Flikr is the ultimate Web 2.0 app -- one of the first to implement tags, RSS feeds, and AJAX (Asynchronous JavaScript and XML); to offer APIs to third-party developers; to encourage mashups; and to incorporate groups or “lite" social networking into a tool previously viewed as family-centric.

But Flickr’s biggest lesson for enterprise IT is how it took an existing mainstream app -- photo sharing -- and changed the paradigm altogether. Rather than copy existing “album” and “slide show” models to the Web, as early online photo sites such as Ofoto and Shutterfly did, Flickr started with a blank slate, treating all photos as part of one universal photo album that could be categorized, shared, and presented in infinite ways. It also lowered the bar for accessing content (fewer password hassles) and set the photos against an uncluttered, noncommercial, white background, increasing their impact.

Although not part of Flickr’s initial launch in 2004, tagging has proved central to Flickr’s ability to scale and add value to an otherwise unsearchable universe of photos. Users can add keyword description tags when uploading photos, thereby creating a taxonomy that would have been impossible or cost-prohibitive to create centrally. Flickr also allows users to navigate via “tag clouds” -- visual representations of photo-subject popularity.

Enterprises looking to expose end-users to troves of content should take a tip from Flickr and consider leveraging user-created taxonomies to aggregate and share that content. Not only does the approach facilitate collaboration, but as the taxonomy grows, much can be revealed about the company’s collective interests and expertise. Besides, the more organic your method of categorizing knowledge, the fewer limits you place on how that knowledge evolves.

-- David L. Margulius

MySpace and Social Networking
Poster child and 900-pound gorilla of the social-networking category, MySpace is a study in explosive growth and the difficulty of managing that boom.

From its start in 2003, MySpace spread quickly, adding upward of 200,000 users per day, driven by the popularity among teenagers of its raw mix of self-expression, sexually suggestive content, and garage-band music clips. The service allows users to build highly personalized yet unstructured blog pages, using a variety of widgets and modules, and then link them to friends’ pages.

One key lesson for enterprise IT is that minimally structured apps allow users to maximize personal expression. MySpace -- and similar sites such as Facebook (for college students) and LinkedIn (for career professionals) -- facilitates community building by giving users a blank stage on which to perform, plus a way to develop an audience via “friends” links. Allowing employees greater latitude in personalizing and defining the terms and parameters of their collaboration platform will greatly increase their participation in such initiatives.

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