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Sweeter than suites: Introducing the enterprise workplace

A huge challenge facing all IT organizations, in companies of every type, is the ongoing "complexity crisis": There are just too many heterogeneous applications, programming environments and information types, from too many eras of IT development, for administrators to squeeze optimum value from software and hardware investments.

But if you think things are bad in the data center, pity the poor user: In the hurry to tape together disparate applications and databases, many vendors and IT organizations have forgotten users, who have their own set of problems quietly reaching a critical mass. With more information than ever to guide their decisions, more applications (including choices for both real-time and asynchronous collaboration) than before, and myriad client interfaces, users' toolboxes might be full, but many of the tools are getting rusty. Many products claiming to be suites are in fact point solutions that only address one small part of the problem. Instead of a lasting sweet taste, those suites can leave a sour taste for both IT and users.

IDC believes that an important new user experience and platform, the "enterprise workplace," is emerging to dramatically improve the lives of information workers, including the ease and effectiveness of their transactions and their collaboration. We're on the cusp of the opportunity to provide users with a new and vastly better "user environment" to help them focus attention on getting work done with the help of IT resources.

The user experience: the way we were

In order to understand how the enterprise workplace is emerging and how it is different from what has come before, a little history is in order. Several major evolutionary steps lead to the new era of what IDC calls the enterprise workplace.

Enterprise users in the 1970s through the mid-1980s mainly used enterprise solutions to record transactions. The related user experience consisted largely of basic character input and cursor control--the "green screen." There was no rich media, there was virtually no collaboration, no cross-business process flow and no tools on which to perform information research such as "search."

From the mid-1980s through the mid-1990s, the graphical user interface (GUI) became commonplace in the enterprise, due to the popularity of Windows 3.x. Only toward the mid-1990s did transactional enterprise solutions begin to take advantage of the GUI, in the form of client-server applications.

In the past 10 years, applications with a Web user experience have largely supplanted or extended GUI-based solutions. The content-rich, collaborative, hypertext user experience of the Web, combined with the deployment advantages of Internet-based applications, quickly gave users a new application toolbox, plus a new way to interact with previous-generation, purely transactional and productivity applications.

But even with the advent of the portal in the late 1990s, the enterprise user's Web experience still lacks a wider business process context, and suffers from user experience variations because the underlying applications really remain in silos. It is as if all the pieces for highly productive, role-based information worker-oriented, business process context-sensitive, highly adaptive applications are there, but nothing has pulled the pieces together into a comprehensive solution.

Enterprise workplace: in the service of information workers

In January 2005, IDC introduced the enterprise workplace as consisting of the following elements:

  • a natural, intuitive, adaptive user experience;

  • aggregation of interoperable application services determined by user roles and tasks;

  • cohesive server-side platform for resolving multiple interfaces that takes advantage of the convergence of services across the server-side stack and information infrastructure and renders it in new ways; and

  • an intersection of people, process and information.

The enterprise workplace represents the future user experience for information workers, and suggests a change in enterprise architectures to meld service orientation and contextual collaboration together for the user. The goals ultimately are productivity and better business decisions: The enterprise workplace promises a means to quickly and efficiently execute business processes by navigating seamlessly across applications and information sources.

Drivers for the enterprise workplace

The changes we describe are being driven in equal parts by users, tired of scrambling to adapt to a multitude of interfaces, formats and networks, and partly by vendors, looking to better define their roles amid changes in the emerging enterprise IT architecture.

Effective business processes are driven by rapid access to information, but today's computing environment is still largely comprised of standalone, "unaware" collaborative applications and services, and structured and unstructured data are often spread between several repositories. At the same time, the amount of data and content created by and available to information workers is rapidly expanding.

As evidence, a UC Berkeley study determined that we produced more than 800 MB of new stored content per person in 2003, and the volume has risen by approximately 30% each year since 1999. As the U.S. economy continues to move further from its base in manufacturing to a services base, U.S. firms are increasing the dollars spent to outfit their information workers with software to do their jobs, to the tune of nearly $130 billion by 2008. That rise in the number of workers, content, complexity and the resulting dollars spent to "integrate" the people, processes and information is a driver for the emergence of the enterprise workplace.

Current industry dynamics

An information worker's job is complex and varies from role to role, but there is a core set of activities that must be supported by the enterprise workplace. IDC distills the activities of information workers into six categories: researching, absorbing, communicating, creating, sharing and deciding. Each activity--to a greater or lesser extent--depends upon unfettered access to information, people and processes. The nature of that work requires that users traverse the corporate computing environment from application to application, from interface to interface, from database to database, and so forth. That condition of disconnectedness provides another driver for the emergence of the enterprise workplace.

Executing processes in the enterprise workplace

As an example, let's examine an information worker executing hypothetical processes related to three different projects that require their attention.

In the first step, the information worker queries the enterprise workplace for information on the account status of a company that has sent in a request for proposal (RFP). As the information worker moves through the process of responding to the RFP, the enterprise workplace renders services from multiple applications and information sources as needed. Eventually, a customer support issue arrives and becomes top priority for the information worker.

That issue requires a variety of resources before it can be sufficiently resolved--including collaborative applications, various internal information sources, access to other experts, account information and transaction capabilities, potentially from a variety of enterprise applications from CRM to order management and so on. The enterprise workplace can conceal that complexity from the information worker, guiding them through their workday using rules that accommodate the project-based, collaborative and interrupt-driven nature of their job.

Currently, applications such as CRM, order management, SCM, content management and collaboration are sold as separate packaged applications. Each implements and provides its own user experience or user interface, its own business logic and rules, and its own application infrastructure--though it may share a common application server.

In general, they all sit on a common computing infrastructure. The user has to become familiar with each different application's interface and commands, and context-switch between each user experience. When performing a task as part of a larger process, the user has to use each of those applications and have multiple disjointed experiences.

It's important to note that very little code, business logic or rules are shared across the multiple applications, yet similar functionality is being purchased in multiple instances. Thus, the overall cost for performing a business process is artificially high because buyers pay for redundant interfaces, business logic, access architecture and so on.

Industry impact

Today's siloed user experience means a nightmare of interfaces and information formats for users. But an enterprise workplace infrastructure can greatly diminish complexity for the user by reducing the multitude of applications into fewer tasks, which can be executed through one interface, between interoperable applications and information sources.

Tasks executed in the enterprise workplace can mask most of the complexity from users, allowing them to focus on their core tasks and to be less distracted by technology headaches, like interface switching, searching between multiple stores and information cut & paste. But bringing about this process requires that software architectures change to make the enterprise workplace a reality.

With an enterprise workplace solution architecture, the independent and unaware applications are reorganized to provide a common, unified user experience across a series of application services that facilitates role and task-based processes. That may include a variety of collaborative, authoring, search, visualization, portal and presentation technologies. Secondly, it abstracts the application-specific services and expresses them in a common way (e.g. Web services). Business logic and rules that existed separately in each application are extracted and abstracted and run on a common application infrastructure.

The enterprise workplace delivers a consistent environment for information work. The interface may be personalized. It may adapt to the specific style and needs of each user, or it may be formally designed to support a specific task or workflow. But it is always the same, familiar work environment. It unifies access to both the supporting applications and to the collections of information within the enterprise. The interface is not specific to each application, as is the case in today's work environment. This means that the information worker can perform a variety of tasks without having to switch from one context to another.

Today, the information worker often performs the same type of task in several applications using different commands, requiring the user to switch from one application to another, cutting and pasting, reformatting and conforming to the demands of the application. In contrast, the enterprise workplace conforms to the demands of the job and to the user. By creating a single, familiar environment, many unproductive, repetitive efforts can be eliminated.

How will vendors enter the enterprise workplace market?

The building blocks that make up the enterprise workplace will emerge from an amalgamation of technologies and solutions offered by a variety of vendors from several different functional markets, although not all of the necessary pieces have been completed or even conceived.

As the enterprise workplace becomes an accepted concept, IDC expects vendors to descend on it from all directions, coming from several functional market categories, including but not limited to:

  • collaboration,

  • portals,

  • content management,

  • search and retrieval,

  • information management,

  • secure and flexible access,

  • business process applications, and

  • business intelligence.

Each vendor will have its own take on what the workplace should look like and what should be included in the supporting infrastructure. Large vendors can be expected to propose an entire platform and to develop an ecosystem of participating vendors. Smaller vendors may either offer a single layer or perhaps plan to integrate with the platforms that are proposed. The enterprise workplace represents an architectural change in the corporate computing environment. As with any major change, vendors will have to position themselves to provide the platform and/or the interface and create the ecosystem, or to partner with one or more of the platform vendors.

Where will we go from here?

A hallmark of the enterprise workplace is the promise that when applications and systems are left to do what they do best (provide functionality), users can concentrate on what they do best. The enterprise workplace will solidify as IT vendors agree upon a common framework for how they will use business intelligence, leverage database information and work with front ends in a way that makes the user more productive, and more efficient.

Only the largest corporations can afford to invest in complete suite solutions, and even those customers in recent years have shown an inclination toward buying best-of-breed products, placing concerns about integration second to their concerns about getting the most effective product for the job. The enterprise workplace delivers on the promise of the suite—integrated, best-of-breed functional components that really understand and interrelate with each other. It is the realization of a convergence between collaborative and content management applications, as well as enterprise portals and business process management capabilities. It gives the information worker newly sharpened tools to approach their complex tasks and business processes, by using Web services to perform many of the tasks formerly requiring multiple discrete applications.

With new strides in interoperability and open standards, and the promise of a better user experience in the enterprise workplace, the software industry is poised to deliver new business value to corporate customers in a unified way, rather than through a new generation of disparate applications. And what could be sweeter than that?

Robert Mahowald is research manager, Collaborative Computing, IDC , e-mail rmahowald@idc.com. Mark Levitt is research VP, Collaborative Computing, IDC, e-mail mlevitt@idc.com.

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