Employees are not middleware

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Summary : the reason why employees balk at using many of the tools they’re provided with is because they are asked to articulate different ways of working and type of informations together and bridge the gaps between application silos. Not only all of them don’t have the required skills to do that, to understand how and why they should articulate things together but, moreover, they don’t have the time to bridge between tool. For a long time they’ve been asked to do a kind of middleware job. In the future, organizations won’t avoid the cost of a deeper tool integration in order to replace people’s time that’s not scalable by a technological layer that is. That’s also true for enterprise social software.

The less we can say is that organizations have been investing a lot to make employees more productive by making their tasks easier to perform but employees really balk at using the tools that are supposed to make their life easier. At the beginning many thought that it will be different with enterprise social software because it’s made of tool that people use and appreciate in their personal lives. But, at the end, the conclusion is still the same : an incredible portfolio that can help to face nearly all situations…but very few adoption.

Let’s try to think as the average employee. In front of him, on his screen : an email client, a portal, a document management system, one or two activity specific application (ERP, CRM…), a social network, an instant messaging client… Enough to do everything and solve all his needs and channels for every kind of interaction : structured, unstructured, synchronous, asynchronous, within a defined project group, within open topic-centric communities…

The truth is that organization made a bet. They bet people intuitively know how to articulate these logics and tools and behave as information smugglers.

– articulate logics : work with structured activity centric tools and go to find relevant information to make decisions in a social network for instance.

– articulate tools : use a CRM, then find some information in the social network, then in the ECM, come back to the CRM then use the portal… Aggregate all the informations about someone from the official directory, his activities on the social network, his contribution to wikis etc…to be sure this is the right person to contact to solve a business problem.

– being information smugglers : a discussion in a tool may help to generate an information in another, an information here may be the cause of a conversation there.. To make the system work, information has to move from one tool to another. A report from the CRM to share in a group space, a discussion inside a community to link to an action in the CRM… In the best case people copy and past, in the worse they make screen shots…and end doing nothing because it makes them waste too much time.

No one should have to wonder were are the informations that are related to a business issue that appears in any enterprise tools : they should be suggested on the screen where the issue appears. “You should visit such community where people converse about this product / sector, contact M. So and so because he knows this product / client very well… A sales person should not have to go information-fishing to help his customer : informations should come to him directly where he works : in his CRM.

No one should have to transfer and convert information from one tool to another : tools should be able to exchange in one clic or, at least, to propose a link between any object and the conversations / user generated information / people related to this object.

In many cases, business data cause exchanges and exchanges improve the way decision are made and people act. So, going from one to the other should be natural, the formal and informal part of one’s work should be linked into tools if we want employee to articulate the structured and unstructured part of their work.

Of course, a lot of development and integration will be needed to create this software layer and it will have a cost. But the question is : what do we want ?

This articulation, this middleware work, will be performed by either technolohy or people. In the first case it will cost money, will take time, but will help to provide employees with a coherent and unified work environment that will remove many barriers to the adoption of more productive ways of doing things. In the second case, we assume that people are able to perform these articulation tasks, what is true for less than 10% of employees. It also means we decide to replace a scalable IT investment by human time that is not scalable. If people save less time by using tools than they loose time by juggling with them and using them, they can’t be blamed for chosing to…be productive !

As long as this issue won’t be solved, there are lots of chances people will keep on refusing new tools and ways of getting their work done.

By the way, does it mean the end of “plug and play social software” that can be used without integration ? The revenge of heavy projects as “legacies” like it ? I think so, at least to some extent. The social component should be a layer shared by all enterprise applications, what will need a little plumbing…and vendors that understand this need. Employees are not paid to make IT plumbing , that’s IT people’s job. But it supposes that vendors offer tools that makes it as easy as possible.

Keep something in mind : any information system that puts the solution to a problem more than one click away from the problem looses many users at each extra click.