The Consumerization of IT.  Bring Your Own Device. Personal Cloud Storage.  These buzzwords have sent IT departments the world over into a tizzy.  In fact, 37% of all IT related articles written in the last 2 years have been about one of these three concepts.  (I totally made that stat up.) We, as IT people, are obsessed with the consequences of allowing consumer devices and personal software behind the corporate firewall and well we should be.  The idea raises many questions:

  •  How can we support all of these various devices? 
  •  How will we keep our networks secure? 
  •  If they’re using their own software and hardware, do they really need us at all? 

These questions, and their many variations, are important and must be answered.  However, in the midst of our flesh rending and teeth gnashing, I think we have completely missed the biggest problem introduced by Consumer Technology in the Enterprise, it has given rise to the RETEs.

Recently Empowered Technology Enthusiasts are proto-geeks who have come to believe that they have a savant-like way with technology, because in recent years the technology they used to struggle so hard to use, now just comes to them naturally.  Most RETEs are harmless, sweet even.  Your mother became a RETE the first time she texted you from her new iPhone.  But there is a certain brand of RETE who is very dangerous, specifically for IT Departments dealing with Consumer Technology issues, the RETE in charge.
This person used to fight with their Blackberry daily.  They would get stuck in the menu tree and call IT to help them find their way out.  They bought a netbook because it was tiny and shiny and cool-looking, but they threw it out a window because it was too slow and would drop the wireless network every 5 minutes.  Then they discovered the iPhone, the iPad, and the App store.  The heavens opened and Steve Jobs in the guise of Prometheus bent toward them with the flame of all technical knowledge, passing it slowly in front of their face.  The scales of ignorance fell from their eyes and suddenly everything made sense.  Technology was easy!  Apps could do everything!  And that’s the moment when the question that strikes fear in the heart of every IT Guy first occurs to the RETE.  “Why is it still so difficult to do all of this technology stuff at work?”

It’s a perfectly valid question, but there are many obstacles to making technology at work as easy to use as commercially available consumer technology.  We have long term contracts and agreements with enterprise software makers.  We have security and support issues that consumer app makers don’t even consider, and we have industry and company specific requirements that they aren’t interested in addressing.  The RETE in charge doesn’t care, “Why is it still so difficult to do all of this technology stuff at work?”
Consumer software makers have spent the last few years building apps that aren’t just solving a particular problem for the user, but also doing it in a way that is intuitive and simple, that conforms to the user’s workflow instead of requiring the user to conform to the software.  The software learns the user instead of the other way around.  Intelligence is built into the back end of these apps so that users don’t even see it, let alone have to use their own.  “So… why is it still so difficult to do all of this technology stuff at work?”
Many enterprise software makers are just now hiring their first User Experience Engineer. They’re half a decade or more behind the consumer software developers.  The big guys, the one’s we’ve all been paying exorbitant licensing fees for the last 20 years, they’re going to struggle and many of them will fail in the coming years.  They’ll be replaced by little guys who have been building consumer apps and have been focused on the user experience all along.  These little guys will eventually nail the security and support issues too, and their focus on user experience and their lower overhead costs (read: lower licensing fees), will lead to enterprise level, intuitive, user-centric software in the not-too-distant future.
In the meantime, the question is still hanging in the air, waiting for a simple answer. “Why is it still so difficult to do all of this technology stuff at work?” 
If you come up with a good answer, drop me a line.  

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Photo of Ryan McClead Ryan McClead

Ryan is Principal at Sente Advisors, a legal technology consultancy specializing in cross-platform solutions and support.  He has been an evangelist, advocate, consultant, and creative thinker in Legal Technology for more than 15 years. In 2015, he was named a FastCase 50 recipient, and in 2018, he was elected a Fellow in the College of Law Practice Management. In past lives, he was an Innovation Architect, Knowledge Manager, a Systems Analyst, a Fashion Merchandiser, and Theater Composer, among other things.

  • Anonymous

    I can tell you from experience that Apple is not the answer unless you are a true believer, interoperability is not important and you prefer to spend a lot more than your competitors.

  • I think it's because most business software products are built to handle any potential desire the user might have. Consumer products are generally focused on handling a much smaller number of potential user objectives and, as a result, are far better at predicting what the user will want to do.

    Also, in a phone/tablet environment, most of the file management activity is hidden from the user. When I'm helping my dad, who's in his 80s, this is generally where he gets in trouble. "Where'd I leave that file? Why doesn't this thing remember for me?"

  • Isn't it funny, though, that an attorney, for the most part, will accept the limitations of an iPad app; however, try to explain the limitations of the DM interface and it is met with disgust.

    Our end-users have been conditioned to expect customizations from their firm systems. Just look at what goes on with Proforma printing in most firms. Nothing is off the shelf, but it is, it is quickly broken with the litany of customizations required by [Insert Law firm department/practice group/committee here].

    Perhaps, the benefit that comes from this is the acceptance of off-the-shelf software and conformity to set standards. Expectations may not change (they'll probably go up), but paradigms could shift.

  • Anonymous

    At the risk of showing my age, weve been through this before. About 30 some odd years ago, the proles broke free from the masters of data in the glass rooms by diverting their paper clip budgets into the purchase of the IBM PC and later the clones. Freed from the necessity of bowing to the computer gods in order to get their data fixes, they happily set about crunching their numbers (Visicalc)and writing their letters (Wordstar). Eventually they realized they actually needed things to work so they could actually get things done so they beseeched the gods to please make their toys actually become productive. And so they did.

  • Todd

    Nice post. Drew, your attorney accepts the limitations of the iPad app because he knows there are a thousand other ones out there for trivial cost that do the same thing in different ways and there will be a thousand new apps by next year all just as inexpensive. He is disgusted because he knows he will sill be using the same version of Autonomy for DM next year, or maybe a slight upgrade!

    We are a Mac firm trying to design a DM app and it is intimidating to compete with the whole eco-system! But I am coming to the conclusion we should write multiple simple apps rather than try to write one big one to please everyone.