Almost two years ago, I wrote about the Widgetization of CRM; a concept where user interfaces were designed to support the job being done – nothing more, nothing less. This was born of my frustration as a CRM user who didn’t sit inside of a big, cumbersome and expensive CRM application all day; my job doesn’t look like that (does yours?). I was out doing other stuff, but did have the occasional need to look up a phone number, or record customer notes in various contexts.
Since then I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the jobs being done in the organizations I work with, including my own. I’ve realized, perhaps later than I should have, that there really is no front office and back office. This entire concept is rooted in the traditional ways we have organized our work. Thus, the applications supporting these have evolved as distinct silos of functionality and have been priced and sold as such.
Sure, accounting is fairly standard work guided by regulatory guidelines; but the people doing this work are also invested in data also found in the front office. In fact, as the technology to integrate these two meta-silos has become more standardized, more and more companies have invested in services to synchronize the front and back office (e.g. financial data in the CRM package and customer information in the back office package). As a result, sales and marketing groups have begun using the financial data more effectively and have eliminated much of the communication required to access this information just 10-15 years ago.
The problem here is that this sort of integration has introduced administrative complexity and cost (the synchronization mechanism and redundant data storage) while also introducing more user interface bloat and clutter (more tabs, more scrollbars, more information). In my last piece, I questioned whether these interfaces look anything like the job you are trying to do. I know they look nothing like mine. In fact, I often wonder why I’m paying for features that looked good during the demo, but serve absolutely no purpose in my day to day world, now that they’re available to me.
One of the commenters on my last piece mentioned that it would be years before the technology existed to bring legacy applications into architecture such as this. I believe I responded that I was talking about the cloud; which was stupid on my part. The whole point was to bring a sense of purpose to specific interfaces, aligned around jobs people were doing, not their titles, or the underlying application(s) being accessed. It also argued that the backend was unimportant, since we would be providing a new experience and leave the back end to do its back end stuff (data storage/retrieval, business rules, etc.). So, why not include both cloud solutions as well as the other 99% of the market that has already invested in the older stuff?
Oh that’s right; it was going to take years to do that! Not so fast, the technology is here today and I believe it will provide even more opportunity than I described to make organizations more productive; both front and back office. The jobs we are doing have no respect for front and back office software silos.
What Comes Next?
What if the CRM and ERP vendors became irrelevant? What if you could simply build task oriented interfaces that pulled each data point from its master database and place all of this information on a single, lightweight experience? And what if you could modify this data and have it go back to the appropriate system? The answer is that there would no more juggling applications and interfaces could be developed in other contexts; like email clients, taskbar services, or widgets.
Don’t confuse this with an integrated experience; vendors who have integrated the front and back office into one a single application. That’s the same old feature bloated experience I’m hoping will go away. More of the same is not going to move the ball forward. Coupling and decoupling may wring the last ounce of efficiency out of the production side of the equation, but it’s the customer that we really need to focus on going forward. And they need something different.
If someone were to design a dynamic catalog of widgets where appropriate bundles could be published to specific roles, internal groups, external partners and/or customers this someone will have taken control of the experience away from the legacy vendors. In fact, if the connectors used could be swapped out as needed, the experience would never change; even if a company were to replace the backend CRM or ERP application.
What are the Benefits?
There are benefits on both sides of the equation, at the expense of the incumbents. This could be a potentially disruptive approach to deploying Enterprise software.
- The developer controls the experience and has removed the backend vendors from the equation. There will be a point where the users won’t even know which applications are managing the business rules and data. It won’t matter if these are on-premise or in the cloud. The technology is here today!
- The developer no longer needs to associate with a handful of brands as an ISV. It becomes irrelevant, which makes the market WAY BIGGER than just the CRM product market, or the ERP product market. The market will now be a truckload of Jobs-To-Be-Done and the technology will work with any vendor.
- The customer will be able to switch nearly at will between backend vendors. Many of the existing obstacles today will be gone. As switching becomes almost seamless to the end user, competitive pressures could force the price down on the backend that no one really knows any more.
- The customer will be able to do their job in whatever context makes sense; Application, Taskbar widget, Outlook, Tablet, Phone, etc. – using the same code in most cases.
- There will be no more large expenditures on data integration, since the data will normally remain where it is; while the ability to move certain outputs to different locations will still exist, as necessary, through this new layer.
- There will be significant pressure to reduce per user licensing costs since they will be using task oriented interfaces. Customers will begin have the leverage to force vendors to charge for the specific value they are providing, to specific users. This is coming, we really need to get used to it!
Could CRM and ERP architectures simply become a set of standards where the interface is taken away from the legacy vendors? I believe so, but don’t expect this to happen without the traditional myopic incumbent reaction. They will either ignore it (to their detriment), they will move up-market to even more expensive and bloated offerings (already doing this), or they will defend by creating a new business model to embrace what’s inevitable (if it’s not too late). If vendors cannot guarantee business outcomes for their customers, the customers will have to seek productivity and efficiency from their technology.
The biggest obstacle is matching the technology up with someone who understands, and embraces, the many jobs being done by workers. That won’t happen overnight, but maybe it has already started?