On-demand Market Maturity and the User Experience: Salesforce, Workday, and Microsoft Show How to Get it Right

The week before Labor Day was an on-demand trifecta, a perfect storm of theory and practice on what the brave new world of on-demand software and services can and will evolve to in the coming years. It was the week of Dreamforce and the maturation of Chatter, the week that Workday hosted a group of influencers and, among other things, showed off a pretty cool iPad app, and it was the week that I decided to test drive Microsoft’s Office 365 and learned to live in the cloud happily thereafter. Not bad for the last week of summer.

The juxtaposition of these three topics isn’t just a matter of convenience for a blogger whose blogging backlog is measured in months. What struck was what these three events said about the maturity of an on-demand market that has been until this year dominated by an excess of wishful thinking about how the new technologies, work styles, and business models endemic to the hype curve of on-demand would translate into the real world – that staid and conservative workplace that we hipsters in Sillycon Valley tend to gloss over in our excitement over our new cool toys.

Looking at Chatter as part and parcel of a real business processes, Workday using the visual metaphor of the iPad to make on-demand workforce management an intuitive, interactive experience, and using Office 365 to greatly facilitate my multi-device, multi-location, almost-always-on work world made it clear that on-demand’s greatest contribution to our lives isn’t the simplistic notion of the “end of software” or that everything IT suddenly switches from from capex to opex , or even that IT resources can now be allocated in a completely elastic, transparent matter.

The real revolution of on-demand will be a combination of two factors: the first, which I’ve written about extensively in the past, will entail the development of new applications and services that simply could never be developed in the pre-on-demand world for love nor money.

The second, which my last week of summer experiences really brought home, is that on-demand – aided by tablets and other mobile devices, and benefiting from more than a decade of practical and impractical use – is revolutionizing the technology-based experiences of users and in the process vastly expanding the user base of technology. And it’s doing so by blending the old and the new, the stuff we’ve always done and the stuff we’ve dreamed – when we knew how – of doing one day.

These new user experiences are both dramatic and subtle, depending on the use case and the degree of revolutionary or evolutionary change – intended or unintended – that the on-demand software is now bringing to the table. Take Chatter/Workday: being able to approve a workflow-driven HR request inside a Chatter stream looks like such an obviously essential  function that if you didn’t know that this was new and cool you would have just assumed that had always been possible.

Or, more to the point – in an ideal world you wouldn’t have bothered with a tool like Chatter unless it had this functionality: the notion that activity streams auto-magically enhance real business processes was a key part of the above-mentioned wishful thinking that characterized the hype phase of social, on-demand software. And Chatter-as-workflow-enhancer fits both of my criteria for being part of the revolution of on-demand: net new functionality you couldn’t deliver for love nor money in the old on-prem world, with a revolutionary user experience to boot. And hidden inside the value of this net-new cool stuff is solid grounding in the past: those old tried and true business processes that need to get done regardless of the newness or coolness of the toys we have to do our jobs with.

I had a similar epiphany playing with Workday’s new iPad app: you almost have to ask why anyone would bother to rethink HRMS and human capital management without building such an app and deploying it on a platform like the iPad. Of course, this is a management-level app, meaning that much of the hairy, hard work of managing a workforce isn’t intended to be in this app (no more than the hairy, hard work of the enterprise is intended to be done in Chatter, BTW). But when you think back to Larry Ellison’s famous epiphany in 1997 that his company’s HRMS system was unable to answer the simple question of how many people actually worked at Oracle, it’s clear that if Larry asked the question today there’d be an app for that, and it would look like the one I tested from Workday. Again – cool new functionality in service of a better way to do our day-to-day jobs.

While Salesforce and Workday are using on-demand to  change the look and feel of the user  experience, Office 365 is using on-demand to maintain a familiar desktop user experience while fundamentally altering the usability of that experience.  It wasn’t easy for me to reach this stage at first – O365 suffers from a lack of concise documentation on how to migrate from an existing desktop Office experience to the O365 version.  It’s the classic backwards compatibility problem that has dogged Microsoft since the dawn of time: if you want to move your desktop Office environment to  O365, you have to not only run a confusing gauntlet of miss-matched documentation, but you’re largely left on your own to discover what the brave new world of O365 means to your workday once you throw the switch.

To be fair, the backwards compatibility problem of O365 exists precisely because it is replicating an existing work model in the cloud, unlike Chatter, which is creating a net-new user experience from the ground up, or Workday, which is deliberately trying to create a new HR metaphor. But Microsoft could, and should do better at showing how the net-new blends with the old to create a pretty impressive on-demand experience.

That experience is primarily defined by the use of an  on-demand Exchange Server to synchronize Outlook’s email, calendar and contact list with any online device that can talk to an Exchange server. The synchronization works so well and with so many devices that the result is a degree of usability that, again, seems to be exactly what all the hype about on-demand has always been about: access from any device, seamless synchronization between devices, and  largely seamless synchronization between the day to day of the work world and the hope and promise of the on-demand world. The result is a degree of connectivity between devices and those key elements of Office that has revolutionized how this road warrior wages war. It’s not about a net-new metaphor, nor about completely altering how I do my day to day: it’s about using the cloud to make what I do better. Much much better.

It would be unfair to the rest of the on-demand market to say that Salesforce, Workday, and Microsoft O365 are the archetypes of the phenomena of net-new functionality and new user experiences that enhance existing business processes. Clearly the phenomena have been in the market for some time, and both have many progenitors. But the fact that the on-demand market pioneer (Salesforce), the on-demand market fast-follower (Workday), and an old-line on-premise laggard whom many have wrongly written off (Microsoft) can all make an impressive showcase for what is not just to come in on-demand but what is here and now makes the end of summer 2011 a watershed for the market. With the promise of much much more to come.


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