What I learned at Office 2.0
Now that I've had a week to reflect on the Office 2.0 Conference, I find that I can't really shake my initial reactions. Overall, the conference was worthwhile, and I had a great time in the halls and at the events, meeting customers and competitors face to face. The Enterprise Irregulars' dinner was a blast.
Ismael and Julia did a fantastic job putting the conference together. Everything ran beautifully. The location was superb. The wifi worked. The food was good. He collected a terrific roster of speakers. But as for the actual content of the conference sessions, I walked away largely dissatisfied.
The panels were too similar and the topics were too broad. The discussion inevitably devolved to a small set of the same general questions ('What is office 2.0?', 'Is IT the enemy?', 'What about offline?'). But few speakers offered any data, any real-world experiences, or any solutions. Far too much time was spent arguing about these fairly mundane questions, and far too little attention paid to the actual transformative potential of 'Office 2.0' software.
Here are a few, unordered thoughts that I had a various points in the panel discussions:
On user interface
Saying that “user interface / usability / ease-of-use is important” is absolutely worthless. Its like saying “art should be good,” or “buildings shouldn’t fall down.” Do you think anyone would ever argue with that assertion? No? Then there is no need to say it. Instead, why not try to figure out what interfaces succeed or fail for Office 2.0 use? How does being constantly online change the possibilities? How should we incorporate all the new meta-information we have available into our interfaces?
I’m pretty sure “It has to be seamless” is just a euphemism for, “don’t make me leave Outlook.” We have got to get over this mind-set. Outlook is not the ultimate delivery platform.
We should be neither surprised nor alarmed that not everyone “participates” in using Office 2.0 applications. When we look at wiki participation, we see far more readers than editors, and far more editors than true creators. That’s totally ok. Even in that scenario, everyone still gets some degree value from the wiki, We can work to increase the ratio of contributors over time, because that increases the value of the whole, but we need to accept that the ratio will never be one-to-one and optimize for that pattern.
Quite a few questions were raised about ‘the training problem.’ If there is no training for Office 2.0 tools, how do we expect businesses to adopt them? The general answers from the panelists was either: ‘Don’t worry, if there is money to be made someone will offer training sooner or later,’ or ‘wait for the next generation of employees.’
Unfortunately, I’m not entirely sure that this is the kind of problem that training can solve. There is a huge gap between the web-natives who are comfortable in this environment and the average office worker. Teaching someone where the ‘bold’ command is in an online word processor is not sufficient. How do you teach someone how to collaborate? How do you teach someone how to live on IM? How do you teach someone to blog? How do you teach the values of the network?
The good news is that while I’m not sure that it possible to teach these things, it is definitely possible to learn them. We all did, at one point. There is a process of acclimating and integrating into the new online community that we all went through, were we learned the rules of our new locale.
As Office 2.0 tools begin to penetrate the organization, they will be adopted because they offer advantages that traditional tools don’t. And the great advantage is collaboration, which means that Office 2.0 can ride the wave of network effects: the tools have more value to me if you use them too, so I’m going to go out of my way to encourage you to do so. As more of the work of the organization moves into that medium, holdouts will be drawn to adopt the tools if only to stay relevant. Office 2.0 has the potential to make life inside a corporation slightly less stultifying, and the non-natives will be able to see those benefits in the long run, just as the did with email.
On selling enterprise software
Selling software to the CIO is a path to disaster: either you’ll fail and you won’t make any money, or you’ll succeed and your software will suck. Sell your software to the people who use it. Make it so insidiously good, so necessary, that by the time the CIO finds out about it, removing it from the organization would cause a revolt. You’ll still lose some of those battles, but a really good software should win enough of them.
Office 2.0 tools have been, so far, written mostly for the small-to-medium business. But what happens when software focused on SMB gets pulled toward the enterprise? In my experience, enterprise tools tend to suck so badly (see above) that occasionally large enterprise customers are convinced to buy simple, lightweight tools to replace them. But once that happens, those large customers will try to convince you to add more and more complexity to meet their specific needs. And pretty soon, your software is almost as heavy-weight and over-engineered as the sucky tool they ran away from in the first place. You must be constantly vigilant in fighting the suck.
The fact that most Office 2.0 apps can’t be used when you’re offline is a hinderance. But it is not as big a problem, I think, as the panelists would have had us believe. Sure, being offline (in hotels, airports, cars, etc) is a huge issue for the road-warrior types at Office 2.0. And it would be great to have a online-offline syncing solution. But I think their experience is far less common than that of the office worker who is in the office 99% of the time. The industry will develop robust offline access strategies. But I don’t think that they are the sine qua non of Office 2.0.
On the definition of Office 2.0
Office 2.0 is not ‘the network computer done right‘. Merely putting office applications in the browser is insufficient. That is a means, not an end. The end, in my definition, is collaboration using the network. Except for email, the office tools in which we spend the majority our our time today were designed before the age of widespread network connectivity. And in the intervening fifteen years, they haven’t evolved to take advantage of the new environment. Putting office work online allows for networked collaboration, and that has the potential to boost the office-worker’s productively as much as the introduction of the original office suites did.
In my view, there are two prerequisites for seeing the benefits of Office 2.0. Moving your work online is the first one. The second one is opening up that work for everyone to see. Those two changes, together, have the potential to bring about the radical transformation I imagine. The network alone is not enough. We have to change our behaviour to take advantage of the network. So much energy in corporate life is spent fighting bureaucracy. So much initiative gets buried under the weight of ‘the way things are done.’ Organizations needs to commit to a more open, more transparent, more egalitarian structure that allows their members self-organize. Organizations need to lower the barriers to contribution and collaboration and then find ways to capture the value that emerges.
On the social network
If the end of Office 2.0 is collaboration, we have to recognize that fundamentally, collaboration happens between individuals. And what we’re doing in Office 2.0 has large areas of overlap with social networking. Social networking within a corporation adds a layer of purpose on top of the vague friend-collecting of the existing social networks.
Despite the advertising-infected cesspool that MySpace has become, we would do well to learn from the thinking and the research that has come out of the social networking field. Office 2.0 can make our person-to-person interactions more efficient, more transparent and more broad. It can put us in touch with like minds from across the geographies and fiefdoms. It can make the corporation more agile, more reactive, more self-aware: better able to benefit from the full value of its individual members. (I have a much longer post on this idea in the works, so I’ll leave it for now.)
The Office 2.0 Conference was in large part a success, and I’ll definitely attend next year. But next year we must take the conference deeper. We need to ask harder questions, think further ahead, offer concrete strategies, and come prepared with real data. There are other disciplines from which we can learn, and should we recruit speakers from those outside areas to challenge our assumptions and give us fresh insight. We’re just at the beginning of this transformation, and the Office 2.0 conference has the chance to chart that course.
P.S. On PowerPoint
One bonus thought, that occurred to me as I watched a bevy of online PowerPoint tools: PowerPoint encourages lazy thinking and worse speaking. A good slide presentation should be useless without its speaker. If you email someone a slide deck by itself and expect that to work, your presentation sucks.