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Office 2.0 – Do People Really Want to Work Differently?

I’ve been reading a handful of posts about the modest penetration that web-based office applications have achieved thus far. Most of the posts I’ve seen either highlight the limited penetration that web applications have achieved as proof that they are a “failure” or use the same information to pontificate about why these web apps will become prevalent due to clever distribution deals or putting these apps in the hands of the right user base.

I think there’s a much more basic thing holding back this whole Office 2.0 or consumer-web-meets-your-workplace movement. The simple fact is that most people can’t or don’t want to change the way in which they work.

Most people can’t actually change the way they work. There are a lot of people who can’t actually change the way they work. They are in functional jobs where they either stare at a terminal or make use of applications where the way in which work is done is heavily prescribed – fill in this form, submit it in this application, fill out this checklist, etc. Think back to the last time you were at the airport, a hotel, a car rental agency, a restaurant, or a small professional services firm. There are an abundance of people who use systems (as opposed to applications) to get their jobs done. They don’t have the flexibility to suddenly introduce new ways of working unless they plug neatly into the systems they already use.

This isn’t true just of folks who work in these kinds of job. For all but the most senior (or entrepreneurial) white collar workers in large organizations, if your boss (or her boss) wants to see PowerPoint, Outlook, or Word because that’s the format with which she is most comfortable, that’s what you need to do. In most offices, the consumers of information dictate format – it’s the job of the information producers to make sure that the tools they use can conform to the production requirements imposed from above. I would give most of the web office tools I’ve used a passing (but not an A or B) grade in this department.

Most people don’t want to change the way they work unless one of two conditions is true.

Condition #1 -The boss gives them a top-down mandate to use something different. If management decides people will use a new tool and creates sufficient incentives for such a migration to happen, it’s likely to happen.  Without both the mandate and the push, the path to success at many workplaces is optimizing your work output for the current system that management values as opposed to trying to break and remake the production system.

Condition #2 – They find something that makes them more productive at the individual level and they adopt it. There are a handful of things that have slipped into the back door without IT looking because they simply make people more productive. The PC. The mobile phone. The Blackberry. USB Flash drives. These are all tools that could make an individual more productive at relatively modest cost. Their prevalence forced management to deal with them and bring them in house.

I don’t see either of these factors at work in the world of web office applications. By and large most people spend a lot of time trying to figure out how to optimize their work given the tools available – introducing new tools can make that learning obsolete.

The primary benefit at the moment is just price. Right now, the primary benefit for most web applications appears to be price. They’re free or really cheap and don’t require you to issue a laptop or computer to everyone who needs to access them. A secondary benefit is universal accessibility – you can access them anywhere you have a browser and a computer. The challenge with the second point, however, is that most people who can benefit from universal accessibility in the United States (they have regular access to a non-work PC outside of the office) probably also have a work laptop. So, if you have a work laptop, how important is it to have universal web access to your documents?

I don’t want to undersell price as a benefit – it’s a big benefit. I bet there are lots of folks out there, SMBs in particular, for whom the infrastructure savings (in terms of both cost and complexity) far outweigh the lost functionality from not having full Office suites on every machine. But price as a primary benefit means you’re likely to appeal only to price-sensitive customers. What’s the web office pitch for folks for whom price is not the largest issue?

At the end of the day, getting meaningful market share will mean convincing a meaningful number of folks to change the way they work. This will take a really long time, I think. And things that take a long time tend to favor people who have deep pockets and lots of patience. That sounds like Google to me. But I don’t think ti will happen this decade.

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