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9/16/2011
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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 Salesforce.com's Dreamforce cloud computing event, and the maturation of Chatter, Salesforce's private social network offering. It was 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 me was what these three events said about the maturity of an on-demand market. Until this year, on-demand has been dominated by an excess of wishful thinking about how the new technologies, work styles, and business models endemic to the on-demand hype curve 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.

Workday is looking at Chatter as part and parcel of real business processes, using the visual metaphor of the iPad to make on-demand workforce management an intuitive, interactive experience. I'm using Office 365 to greatly facilitate my multidevice, multilocation, almost-always-on work world. Both of these approaches make 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 capex to opex, or even that IT resources can now be allocated in a completely elastic, transparent manner.

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 intended and unintended revolutionary or evolutionary change that the on-demand software is 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'd have just assumed that it 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 on-demand revolution: 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 and 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 that 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.

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