Office Innovation: Eating Dogfood and Herding Cats

Written by Tim Haight

I'm VP of Technology Services for CGNET. I love to travel and do IT strategic planning.

March 24, 2014

newBy Tim Haight

Why is innovation in consumer applications so easy and innovation in office applications so hard? And how can we start to fix it?

This whole train of thought started while I was reading about Android Wear. That’s the new version of Android aimed at wearable devices, such as smartwatches. The utility of a smartwatch comes from allowing you to find out things fast and do things fast. Making a watch really capable of that implies a lot of work in the cloud, getting the watch ready to perform. The thing is, the watch has to know its user’s context, so that it knows what the user is likely to ask. Then it can have it ready fast.

The servers combine information about what apps you use, what you search for, where you are, what you’ve asked for before, whatever. And it all comes down to letting the users find out what they need to know with a glance and get the server in the cloud to do stuff with a word. This age of context is coming on like a meteor storm.

We accept these predictions because we’ve been living through similar changes with our smartphones. I’m just an old guy, nothing cutting edge here, but a lot of apps on my smartphone have really made my life simpler: texting, taking pictures of stuff before I take my smartphone to the hardware store, Wayz and Google Maps, photo text, Fandango, YouTube and Pandora, Kindle, Audible, Netflix and Amazon Prime.  Looking up a store on the Web and calling it with one click. See, pretty old-fashioned, but it’s made a hell of a difference.

Meanwhile, at the office, I’m doing things pretty much the way I’ve been doing them for years. Well, that’s not completely true. We are using Lync or GoToMeeting for conference calls. We use Lync to communicate desk-to-desk. But we’re still sharing documents by attaching them in emails, still mostly collaborating in meetings (live, phone or video), not really taking advantage of all the new stuff that collaboration apps are supposed to bring.

Why Is It So Hard?

Why is that? It think it’s because it’s too hard to eat our own dog food, because you have to herd cats. In the old days, way, way back when people were deciding what to do with computers in the office, a usual pattern was for one hotshot to start really getting results from an app, which would get other people to use it. That’s still pretty much how it is in the smartphone world today. But in the office, the hotshot has to talk some other people to join in testing that collaboration app. That can be difficult. Herding cats.

When you raise it up to how organizations adopt new applications, usual process seems really flawed. Not to put too fine a point on it, you get a committee together, define a bunch of needs, watch some demos, pick one and hire somebody to teach you how to use the app. And fairly often people aren’t happy with it. That’s where the dog food comes in. In case you missed the reference, software vendors a while back started saying they they use their own apps, calling it eating their own dog food. And I think that’s important. I never really feel I understand an app until I’ve lived with it. Perhaps we should live with apps before we marry them.

But how do you build that period of genuine use into the process without committing the whole organization to it? The obvious answer is a pilot program. But how many pilot programs are we prepared to see fail? In an organization, there’s an expectation about how you’re going to spend your time, and learning about new apps isn’t a high priority. That’s true for individuals, but much more so for groups.

So what’s needed is a pre-pilot program, somewhere where a lot of apps can get tried and turned down, before one shows up that is really good. But who’s going to do that?

I think IT should take that on. But in organizations with one or less full-time IT person, how is that going to happen? Maybe we have to form online groups with other folks in a similar situation to test collaboration. Seems like a lot more work, but as the gap between those fast-changing consumer apps and the stodgy old office grows, somebody is going to have to do something.

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