The dumbing down of the web in the enterprise

This week I had the opportunity to attend the Gartner Web Innovation Summit. Overall, the sessions were good … I really loved the one by Christine Connors @ Dow Jones on the Semantic Web – With the exception of Christine’s session (which I think was an advanced topic for the folks here) I’ve noticed that the sessions are not asking the audience to take the big steps necessary.


Some background: As we are dealing with larger and larger enterprises, I’m noticing a common conflict brewing. There is a demand from the business to create better user experiences that directly conflicts with the sheer complexity of the legacy systems & IT’s inability to make any progress forward. The truth is that most of these systems are “frankensteins” – 2 year old software bolted on 5 year old software bolted on 10 year old software (even all the way back to 20+ year old vacuum tube systems).  — The question: is your IT group enabled to pull your company into “today”?


Here’s the rub – how do you tell an enterprise to be innovative when business realities are not allowing them to be so. Hell, sometimes large enterprises are struggling to make simple, incremental improvements. And, the truth is most of them are not willing to take the risk and make large scale strategic moves to re-build their infrastructures from the ground up.


So… here we are at the Gartner Summit, primarily geared towards telling big business how to be  innovative… And I’m thinking to myself that these sessions are not really telling these people what they need to hear. I know it is not because of the quality of the analysts – when I meet with them individually they are very bright and have well informed opinions. I’m left feeling (I’m am over stating this for effect) that these analysts have just learned that enterprises are so opposed to change that the best these analysts can do is to incrementally bring enterprise into “this decade” … The bigger issue : change is happening so quickly that every year a business makes what they think is a big change, they are actually falling behind even further. 


Where does this leave us? Ironically, I believe the big winners of tomorrow are the market laggards of today. I think current market leaders in the enterprise are going to be less willing to take risks in areas where their competition may be willing to make them – and given the real value of making large investments in online customer centric initiatives, there is a very real potential to leapfrog.


My humble advice:

  • “Walk the factory floor”. In other words, take the time to talk to your IT folks (not just the managers, but the system analysts, developers, QA personal) … They know what needs to be done to bring you up to date, they know what legacy systems are holding you back. Let them know that you are not passing judgement on “how we got here” – I would say 80% of the fortune 500 is behind the times, and 99% of them have some legacy system skeletons. 
  • Talk to your customers – and involve objective 3rd parties in the process. Do not wholesale put your trust into what 3rd parties tell you – use them to give you insight without ego and another perspective (or even validation for what you have found in your own customer research)
  • Establish metrics for success – let the teams know how you will measure their efforts.
  • Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water. I’m not suggesting that all your legacy systems need to go (I’m not that delusional) – but put systems in place that starts to abstract the legacy environment from the presentation tier. That way, years from now, you can incrementally replace without having major impacts to the business
  • Get horizontal organization buy-in. Make sure the key stakeholders across the organization departments are all bought in. You may even need to help break down silos and create cross-departmental teams to help.
  • Invest now – Someone in your space is already doing pilots in online customer portals with RIAs or desktop software or employee productivity software…. all of which (if executed on properly) will show positive ROI results in short order.
  • Be patient – innovation is incremental. Gartner suggested that the ROI on these efforts is about 2 years. Don’t place unrealistic demands on release dates because that will force your IT to continue the frankenstein process.
  1. Justin said:

    Interesting advice. I highly recommend The Innovator’s Dilemma by Christensen as it does a great job going into more detail about what happens to entrenched business when they only respond with incremental change.

    And while I agree with getting buy-in across the organization, I would argue that creating silos (and per-silo metrics) is a good way to digest disruptive technology into an organization. For example, don’t judge your silverlight team by a flash yardstick.

  2. Hi,
    You might want to take a look at the Gartner Blog Network.

  3. David said:

    I suppose what you really need to consider when dealing with the realitities of working with multi-national “enterprise” organizations is that they are often divided into many, many, many units, even under what you refer to as “the it group”

    Corporate IT might be made up of a web operations team, system support, networking, security, enterprise application architecture, etc, etc, etc (and all of these units responsible for the overall deliniation of responsibilities related to launching a custom application). These different groups have different budgets, different department heads, different agendas, etc.

    The bottom line is that even with C-level support for a project, any “enterprise” will have things scheduled out 6 months to a year for IT-related projects and budgets that have already been spoken for.

    In your case, you either need to start small, and develop a multi-year “program” that will enable your business to slowly build over time, or piggy-back on an existing vendor like Deloitte, Accenture, Bearing Point or others that, for some reason, have the relationships that YOU do not.

    You can not assume that legacy systems are a bad thing. The reason they have layers of new technology “bolted on” to them is due to the fact that they are time consuming, expensive and really not realistic to replace in order to provide one single group within a multi-national organization to have a slick looking software application.

    I agree with you on some points, however find others to be over-simplified to an extent of not being realistic.

  4. – David,

    Curious what you found unrealistic – is it the request to understand your customers, talk to the people on the ground doing the work, be patient, invest now, establish metrics? Perhaps its just the thought that enterprises can learn, innovate and change? I hope I’m not being unrealistic – look at the founders of some of the more innovative companies today on the web (salesforce, workday, amazon) – you’ll find that those founders came from large corporate entities- those enterprise left an opportunity for a smaller, more innovative company to come along and displace a large portion of their business.

    Again, IMHO, enterprises need to re-think how they are executing online today, or become the “Harvard Business Journal’s case studies of opportunities lost” tomorrow –

  5. gfish said:

    Whoa, whoa, wait a second… I wrote about this very sort of thing on my blog and in a business magazine. IT does not hold businesses back. Bad decisions during the construction of enterprise systems, allowing anyone in the company to request any change at whim whether it’s a good idea or not from a macro standpoint and the executives’ insistence that reusing legacy software “just one more time” will save them millions of dollars regardless of how much they’ll have to pay later to undo the damage, that’s what holds businesses back.

    You stated that just creeping along, making incremental change after incremental change doesn’t allow you to catch up with the galloping marketplace. In my experience that’s very true. Your points of advice however, is something the executives do every day and have done for years. The challenge is to get them to accept that if they rely on a powerful IT infrastructure to deliver their services, they need to open up the wallet, allow IT to do what it needs to do to keep current and limit distractions and change requests to mission critical minimums.

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