Blurred lines: is the consumerisation of enterprise technologies creating unnecessary division?

Enterprises beware – there may be some sacrifice in software simplicity for the hybrid user

For Adam Doti, a Salesforce veteran of over 11 years who has designed the UX for platforms such as Salesforce Lightning, the whole debate over the consumerisation of enterprise technologies is simple. Users are demanding ‘frictionless design’ and if that means using engaging consumer techniques in enterprise products, then so be it.

“Enterprise technology companies need to stay hyperfocussed on human-centred experiences and consider the humans who work for a company, more than the company itself,” explains the Salesforce VP and principal design architect. 

“What are their needs as users of your product? At Salesforce, we show deep empathy for our users and remember that many of them spend eight hours a day on the platform as a function of their role, making human-centred design so critical.”

The point Doti makes is that if technology is easy to use and more intuitive, it is less likely to create a barrier to productivity. A simple case of using whatever technology works and gets the job done. But is that right? There is a distinction here – it’s one thing to design enterprise products to look and feel like consumer products. But it’s completely another thing to actually blur the lines and use consumer products in the enterprise.

During the pandemic and the rush to set up working from home, there was an inevitable shift in digital technology use. Employees working from home expected technology to be as simple to use as consumer technologies. Simplicity was key. With IT support staff stretched to breaking point, organisations needed employees to self-service as much as possible and that meant using devices and tools that were more familiar. It led to an increase in choice and, consequentially, a surge in sales at firms such as Apple.

“The pandemic was a catalytic moment for the consumerisation of the enterprise,” says Cameron MacQuarrie, head of strategic customer transformation group UK&I at ServiceNow. “The post-COVID economy is now defined by remote working, which places a greater emphasis on simplicity. When working in disparate locations, employees demand quick and easy solutions that make their lives easier. For instance, mobile capabilities, which consumers have grown accustomed to in their personal lives, are now seen as fundamental aspects of an on-the-go workforce, placing experience at the forefront in the battle for talent.”

This comes back to the idea of choice and in particular how new generations such as Gen Z who are entering the workplace for the first time, are more technologically astute. It means these users already have their own ideas about which software tools and devices work best for them. Potentially it’s a sticking point, one that will have to be worked through by businesses. If they don’t have them already, enterprises will need policies on how to manage this, both from a data security angle but also from an IT management and complexity point of view.

“With the increase in hybrid and remote working, this has accelerated,” says Emile Naus, partner at independent management and technology consulting firm BearingPoint, on the blurring of the lines between consumer and enterprise products. “We are seeing consumer tools being used instead of enterprise products. LinkedIn might well be better and simpler than your CRM product, and WhatsApp is becoming the default communication tool for many. Enterprise tools need to rethink dramatically how they work – by starting from the user and working back.”

Music to Doti’s ears at Salesforce, although he argues that this is not particularly new, at least for the CRM giant.

“We saw this blurring begin when enterprise software began moving to the cloud,” he says. “Older companies with legacy systems and solutions have been the slowest to make the digital transformation. Contemporary direct-to-consumer brands create product sites that perpetually improve the user experience. They make it incredibly easy for people to buy their products.”

 

Once customers customise their Salesforce solution, they essentially become the ‘product owner’  – Adam Doti, Salesforce

While Doti accepts that the pandemic created an urgency for companies to shift how they relate to consumers, he believes that it is part of an evolution in how software companies in particular have to react to and pre-empt those changing habits.

Of course, we’ve seen it for a while now in social media too, which has managed to bridge the consumer and enterprise divide so successfully. As tools for reaching consumers, sites such as Facebook, Instagram and increasingly TikTok (which in 2020 launched a business focussed version, and is likely to finalise its US data deal with Oracle this year) have been instrumental. But perhaps the current poster child of enterprise consumerisation is Zoom.

The video communications business saw revenues rocket over 300 percent during the pandemic to $2.65bn in 2021. The company grew another 55 percent to $4.1bn by January 2022. Video communication has not looked back. Even Microsoft’s Teams got in on the act, seeing a rapid increase of users from 20 million in 2019 to 75 million by April 2020. But it is Zoom that has crossed the consumer-enterprise divide more than any other video comms tool.

This smudging of the boundaries is important. How consumers perceive technologies is changing, and with Gens Y and Z, this will be more pronounced. As the world of work evolves towards a hybrid future, working with AI-driven automation and increasingly robotic functions, so technology will therefore be seen not in its market context of consumer or enterprise, but more in its usefulness in making things possible. This means that vendors, as both Doti and Naus suggest, have to be watchful.

It’s an interesting one for companies like ServiceNow, which incidentally has run a major ad campaign this year about connecting people, regardless of home or work environments. ServiceNow’s whole thrust is about unity, making folk work better across one platform regardless of location.

“The entire journey across the enterprise is initiated by the empowered consumer,” says MacQuarrie, when asked what the consumerisation of enterprise means to ServiceNow customers and product strategies. “In previous decades, cutting edge technology was primarily only used by businesses, but the proliferation of high-end consumer technology has transformed both customer and employee experiences. This has raised the bar and set high expectations for services and products at work.”

So, what does this look like? How is this manifesting itself at ServiceNow?

“Our platform enables IT systems to work together and understand the experience of the consumer,” adds MacQuarrie. “We can act as a bridge between traditional technology stacks and where consumers are active. Workflows are used to streamline processes and make best use of legacy IT assets and orchestrate the applications that previously involved multiple systems and physical intervention by employees. This makes enterprise consumerisation cost-effective to deliver and improves the capacity of enterprise to expand into new profit pools.”

We can act as a bridge between traditional technology stacks and where consumers are active – Cameron MacQuarrie, ServiceNow

Cost-effective or not, it’s not plain sailing. As Doti at Salesforce suggests, it’s increasingly a balancing act between product design, enterprise functionality and the consumer-like wishes of the users. That said, Doti, like MacQuarrie, also sees advantages, as long as they can meet the challenges head-on.

“The main challenge is the paradox of designing for a platform that can be used in so many unique and unexpected ways,” says Doti. “Our product designers create features and capabilities that have enough flex to adapt to any given set of needs, from physical form factor and content to business requirements. Once customers customise their Salesforce solution, they essentially become the ‘product owner’. If Salesforce constantly updated the UI/UX to respond to ever-changing consumer expectations, we would invalidate what the customer built. At the same time, they know that technology is evolving. It’s a delicate balance.”

What is clear is that this is only the beginning. Only now are we really starting to see the impact of consumerisation in the enterprise and what it means in terms of product design on the one side but also budget constraints, support and security fears on the other. 

The decentralisation of IT budgets during the pandemic has undoubtedly led to conflict as IT departments question the validity of having so many external software tools on the roster. While there may be cost benefits (as we all know a lot of tools are free to use, at least at entry level), it could lead to complexity and unnecessary costs and risks down the line.

As Naus at BearingPoint warns, “There are significant downsides. External tools will collate your data. There is significant value in business data, not always understood or explored. But putting data into external tools will transfer that value to the platform owner. And they typically monetise this data very effectively.”

Naus adds that there is also the risk that end users are left with a series of competing tools, making it less productive and potentially leaving data outside the business without any knowledge, as tools drift out of popularity.

“Security is equally a risk to the business,” he says. “Home networks are typically more vulnerable than corporate networks (for instance, users typically do not maintain/upgrade routers), and the platforms that run the consumer tools may not be based in the US or Europe, meaning legislation is different and sometimes difficult to enforce.”

 

There are significant downsides. External tools will collate your data – Emile Naus, BearingPoint

MacQuarrie throws another challenge into the mix: environmental, social and governance (ESG) reporting.

“ESG metrics are one of the biggest challenges for companies embracing the consumerisation of the enterprise,” he says. “Now more than ever, it’s crucial that companies migrate towards being more transparent about the data across their end-to-end business, including supply chains, and how they’re impacting society and the planet.”

If more and more enterprises embrace consumer tools and platforms managed globally in the cloud, this could be huge. Creating a control tower to gather the right data, validate, audit and report has become a key risk to all stakeholders, adds MacQuarrie. And this is the point. The consumerisation of the enterprise is on the surface a UX and accessibility thing – tools that help get the job done quickly and easily. 

On the other hand, it is fraught with potential complications and risks if left to run riot. Ecosystems will, as a result, become increasingly key to making it possible, through shared governance and compatibility. Less is sometimes more, as the saying goes. Sometimes, you can give people too much choice.