Thursday, August 04, 2011

Anna Karenina and the Consumerization Challenge

A lot of micro trends driving the move to more focus on customer experience have evolved around the theme of the consumerization of IT.  According to Wikipedia, "Consumerization is a stable neologism that describes the trend for new information technology to emerge first in the consumer market and then spread into business organizations, resulting in the convergence of the IT and consumer electronics industries, and a shift in IT innovation from large businesses to the home. For example, many people now find that their home based IT equipment and services are both more capable and less expensive than what is provided in their workplace. The term, consumerization, was first popularized by Douglas Neal and John Taylor of CSC's Leading Edge Forum in 2001 and is one of the key drivers of the Web 2.0 and Enterprise 2.0 movements."

This classic view of Commercialization likely needs an update. (Source: Wikipedia)
This definition definitely leans on and drives towards the consumer electronics industry and is often reflective of the advanced capabilities and better user experience that we get on home devices. In part this trend is responsible for the rebound of Apple, as business users, developers and others started to choose Apple hardware based on the idea that it was easier to use.
But there is a trend hidden within this phenomenon that makes consumerization too simplistic by definition. Do you remember the Anna Karenina principle, "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in it's own way"?  Tolstoy meant that in order for a marriage to succeed many factors had to be in place, but failure in a single aspect could spell doom even when many of the ingredients were there. In his book Guns, Germs and Steel - The Fates of Human Societies, Jared Diamond uses this to to make the point that we tend to seek easy, single-factor explanations of success. For most important things, success actually requires avoiding many separate causes of failure.
Ultimately the business models of consumer electronics and services do not lend themselves directly to supporting enterprise business models. In a recent discussion with an (unnamed) enterprise security firm from Canada we were talking about the issues with securing iPad devices in a way that enterprise find suitable for storing data. What I found most interesting was that this same consumerization trend was driving adoption for cloud-based applications that would absolutely remain secure even if a device was stolen, as long as the device could merely be wiped and not accessed. Because business buyers are essentially a niche market for many consumer manufacturers there is often only a minimal bar set with essential services and often these simply extend capabilities that are already needed for consumers.  Yes, others will move in the market to make things more enterprise-ready but this is a bolt-on strategy that mystifies accountability and often introduces additional points of failure.
In parallel to this increased awareness and concern around consumer electronics in the enterprise there are a plethora of service types that are essentially enterprise versions of broadly adopted consumer applications. Micro-blogging platforms in the enterprise provide all the familiarity and connection benefits that their consumer counterparts offer but prevent access to the purely consumer aspects such as social games or 'interacting' with celebrities.
Consumerization is by definition a process. Private infrastructure is built out to first support early adopters inclusive of distribution, support, related services and accessories. In much the same way, businesses also build out private infrastructure that is to be owned and used by the business, not individuals. When the service types overlap or collide we have no choice but to compare and contrast from both a business and personal perspective and this ultimately fosters a unique form of competitive tension. What is unique is that as end users we compare and ultimately voice frustration when things are perceived to be more cumbersome or difficult to use more than ever. The shortest route to a solution for IT is then to either define a happy medium or simply embrace the consumerized approach and work to make it enterprise-ready. Various people have observed already that users don't really make mistakes any more - instead systems and applications were not built to support their needs and that's why they fail.
There are countless examples of where this has succeeded and been adopted at mass scale and now we even have examples of those wins fading in favour of new consumer-driven approaches. For example, instant messaging as a platform faces competitive pressure as people switch to more social applications that combine personal and shared messaging services. Many of the applications we use to collaborate or work together support instant messaging as well so more more frequently we see the patterns move into context of other tasks.
Photo: Adobe's new Vibe micro-blogging platform, for internal use only from the Adobe@Adobe team.
Everything About Everyone Everywhere
Right now many high-tech marketers and avid social media users both inside and outside the firewall are faced with a net new challenge. For example, we have invested heavily in Twitter and in some cases had some wins on Facebook, LinkedIn, Tumblr, a corporate blog and other platforms to help us work better and smarter across these arenas. In the last few short weeks I have already 'circled' more than 100 Adobe employees making their move to Google+. Similar to many other organizations we immediately begin to think how we could use this platform for our brand, events and products - with the obvious choice being to do something similar to what we have done on Facebook with perhaps a little more 'blog' thrown in.
It was a welcome relief to get the invite to sign up for the Google+ for Business alpha, which will launch later this year for a couple reasons. First, simply repeating what we already do somewhere else did not seem too exciting but more importantly, knowing that Google was going to focus on building a set of services that were unique and meant for businesses means that we can take advantage of that effort and thinking and not try to fit a square peg in a circle. One could argue that the consumerization essentially needs to be more complete in order for businesses to succeed on the platform anyway. And Google+ really is for people, not avatars or brands or businesses or products, but for people to share, converse and communicate in new ways. You can do this on behalf of your business obviously and many are already, but we are doing this as ourselves, as individuals.  Will we always be working to consumerize IT?
It was this overall line of thinking that got me on to the last question there. We had effectively consumerized IT, but were we essentially bound to have to do this over and over again? To take products and services that were meant for consumers and adapt our infrastructures, policies, habits and goals such that we could tolerate its idiosyncrasies and still be effective as employees and teams and grow our businesses accordingly. Or...
Are we moving into an era where we can expect others to do the work needed to commercialize and industrialize consumer patterns and practices? Are we better to take the best practices, methodologies, technologies and platforms and make them enterprise-ready such that we don't face the compromises and downsides that come with all that awesome-ness, ease-of-use and ready to adopt paradigms? Clearly the platform-as-a-service ideology has major differences when it comes to consumer and business best practices. For example:
  • The notion of my personal groups of friends and family does not really translate to teams and organizations. The latter are much more implicit and ultimately need be automated. I wouldn't expect Facebook to know when my cousin has a baby, but I would expect an enterprise platform to know when a customer subscription expires or a team member changes roles.
  • My personal data is mine and while I seek to protect it in one way when I am sharing things in a personal network I have a whole different level of expectations about how my employer will ultimately protect and keep my data safe.

We essentially need to have two identities but we are learning to blend them through brute force. PHOTO - Peretz Partensky
I don't know anyone who thinks that the blending of work and family or personal life is perfect on social networks and this creates this sort of safe version of ourselves. We can't ultimately share everything about our personal lives with our co-workers nor can we share things with family and friends that needs to be kept internal to a company. So what we do is tame both ends of that spectrum and ultimately, from what I see, this creates an incomplete identity. But, currently its the best we have so we go with it and we select those co-workers who we feel more comfortable around to share some of the more personal things we are doing. But we rarely do this with our customers or partners for obvious reasons and here is where it breaks down. The fundamental need to engage with our customers and partners in order to realize the full value of social is handicapped before we even get out the door by a necessary and logical gate we put in place.
Social as an ingredient technology has already made considerable inroads in the enterprise and is often the key to success for steering relevant conversations back into our domain. Here at Adobe we have supported this movement with technologies such as Adobe Connect and Adobe LiveCycle Collaboration Service, but we see the need to go way beyond this in terms of providing a whole solution (and we are).
To me, the point of these intersections and challenges seems to be that we have arrived at a tipping point, a sort of crossroads in what is appropriate and safe and doable and we are now faced with a new challenge. We have consumerized IT but we have not (often enough) commercialized or industrialized the patterns that support this to the extent that they need to be in order to realized their full potential. Imagine that you had invested millions of dollars in a physical mail and logistics system to support shipments and communications and a new platform came along to support electronic mail and simply based on user preference you suddenly had to invest in dual infrastructure and support new security topology in order to…um, never mind.
The platforms we have are already widely adopted for social brand engagement and corporate communications and even employee communications and the conversation has started. I think we have yet to see the full commercialization of consumer platforms and I think there is a lot of untapped opportunity still locked up in our inability to effectively connect these two worlds. I expect that the platforms will continue to evolve to meet this and that the focus on great user experiences based on existing patterns, cloud-ready services, easy integration points and passion for collaboration will combine with the need for security, privacy, versioning, multi-channel delivery and more to build a path for consumer technologies and services to ultimately plateau in the enterprise.
More than ever with the multiple points of connection between all of us at work, at conferences, on social media and through shared information consumption, we have learned to do this collaboratively as an ecosystem.  We need to continue sharing ideas, developing standards and hardening the patterns that are going to succeed and not be subject so easily to the next whim of user preference being a force for wholesale change.  Adapt to adopt - or learn from the patterns we see people migrating towards and build them into our lives and work in a way that ultimately suits all aspects of our proposed lifelong marriage to technology.