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

But another lesson MySpace has to offer is that as social communities grow, they become less cohesive and it’s more challenging to police them and make IT policy decisions that please everyone. MySpace has weathered criticism, for example, for providing a venue for allegedly criminal activity, ranging from copyright violation to identity theft to child-safety issues. Facebook ran into a privacy firestorm when it launched News Feed, an alert system that allows users to monitor friends’ blog pages for personal news events -- such as romantic breakups.

But when it comes to balancing buy-in and control, sites that target and tailor their platforms to discrete domains are among the most successful. Honing the focus and delivering functionality suited to the particular forum and participants ensure a vibrant forum for collaboration without requiring an undue amount of policy management. After all, self-perception and reputation are powerful motivating factors for building worthwhile relationships -- whether the setting is social or corporate.

-- David L. Margulius

Segway Human Transporter
When it comes to tech deployments, cool can take you only so far. Sure, cool can cement success in an app that gives people something they want or know they need, but coolness alone can’t make a technology succeed.

Take the Segway Human Transporter: cool factor 11, the most frisson fabricated for any product this millennium. But it has sold units in the tens of thousands instead of the millions mainly because it was introduced into a system without the requisite infrastructure in place to fuel its success.

The market for automobiles caught fire in part because a smoothed road system had already been laid down for bicycles in the 1880s. The Segway, on the other hand, is seen as dangerous to pedestrians (it goes three times walkers’ rate on sidewalks) and its rider (it tops out at half the cruising speed of vehicles on roads). And because the finely tuned technology -- and marketing -- inspired grandiose investor expectations, it needed to achieve mass adoption quickly, as opposed to the successful diffusion of bicycles and then autos, both of which proliferated on a handcrafted basis with stochastic evolution and mass extinctions.

IT would do well to remember the abundance of great (and cool) technologies that didn’t have the social infrastructure to catch on quickly. Lots of ERP implementations trickled out simply because documentation used vocabulary that didn’t match the buyers’. And if you roll out a time-keeping or SFA system, for example, that uses an entirely different workflow from legacy processes without investing in change management, it’ll get nothing more than a dead-rat bounce.

“The infrastructure” for these apps is user buy-in; you have to sell users, in their own terms, on what the apps can do for them. Users can be “made” to use the systems you deploy for them, but if they don't really want to, they sabotage effectiveness explicitly or passively through lack of intense commitment. And that happens no matter how tricked out the tech.

-- Jeff Angus

Massively Multiplayer Games
Effective collaboration is essential to achieving synergistic productivity rewards. And what’s good for the guild in World of Warcraft is good for the enterprise -- especially those that, dispersed or lean, struggle with diseconomies of scale.

What makes MMGs (massively multiplayer games) such as World of Warcraft a passion for many is that it provides an emotionally secure environment in which they can define themselves from birth, frequently down to the way they look. What’s more, although MMGs offer varying levels of rules, all -- from Avatar to Second Life to Sokker -- are designed to be far more predictable than real life.

But what fuels the addiction is interactivity. Enterprises looking to improve collaboration initiatives could benefit by examining what makes MMGs sticky.

First, MMGs feature token economies -- currencies that have value only internally -- for acquisition of pleasures or status. Knowledge acquisition and sharing apps, such as wikis, help databases, and sales contact spreadsheets, where the effort to populate is personal but the rewards are groupwide, are ripe for this model. Recognition and token rewards can be powerful -- and not costly -- incentives to get input flowing quickly, ultimately to the benefit of all involved.

What’s more, the social structure of most MMGs includes mixers -- “clans” or “guilds” that draw people together almost randomly, creating connections that would not exist otherwise. In many settings, you can increase group cohesion, especially within apps that share real-time interaction, such as CRM, BPM, and knowledge management systems, by creating gently competitive cross-departmental tribes.

-- Jeff Angus

Gaming Consoles
Depending on the altitude from which you view them, game consoles such as Sony’s PlayStation 3, Microsoft’s Xbox, and Nintendo’s Wii can look like anything from brilliant works of high-integration engineering to metaphoric exemplars of efficient large-scale architecture. The rare but wise IT architect or development lead willing to take lessons from video games will find insights well worth appropriating.

From packaging to play, video games and consoles are all about the players, some of whom are brought in early and often for test-drives. In games, as in IT, designers and developers are blind to flaws users spot in a heartbeat. Losing sight of the user during development, and keeping them out of the feedback loop, is a surefire recipe for unproductive and readily ignored apps.

The gaming industry also makes a strong argument in favor of flipping the concept stage of your design process on its head. Before the first logic gates are laid out, every possible source for game and console design inspiration is explored. Form usually follows function, but sometimes it’s appropriate to let form shape function. Many user-facing apps that start life as code would fare far better if the first step in their evolution had been to create a GUI prototype. After all, much like gamers, users who are captivated by the software they use are motivated to attain higher levels of competence, translating into more time spent with the software they’re paid to use and less time trying to escape from it with IM and surfing.

Another takeaway worth nothing is that game consoles never get attacked by malware. In the main, even when they are visible to the Internet for community gaming, no malicious effort survives a reboot. IT can easily borrow this lesson. Marking a file on a hard drive read-only is merely a switch that a cracker or in-house thief can flip at will. But if you store privileged executables and exploitable configuration files, or an entire VM image, on read-only or write-once flash or optical media guarded from physical access, even a cracker that knocks down all your walls can’t create a back door.

But can’t somebody boot with an altered copy of the DVD? Think like a game console engineer and solve that problem yourself.

-- Tom Yager

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