Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Thick or thin for heads-down workers

Thick or thin, that is the question. At least for 'heads-down' workers typically involved with processing large amounts of information on screen extremely rapidly, thick client applications have long been considered the only way to go.

Proponents of thick clients used to argue for the richness of UI that could be presented, but I feel that modern browser based apps on the web show that this doesn't have to be the way. I'm sure you have your favorites you use every day.

So it comes back to performance - speed of refreshing the screen and displaying information. Heads-down users need the applications to work fast, update dynamic data rapidly, display document images in sub-second times, so that their boss can benefit from an aggregate of 'per-click' savings. Thick client-server apps claim the gold standard here.

Can dynamic AJAX applications really keep up? After all, the limitation here becomes the latency of the network. Can browser applications compete with the thick client running on an over-inflated PC generating dynamic displays from data cached ahead of time? Unlikely, as the thick client probably wins every time, pulling data behind the scenes in large chunks.

So, can we really say that browser based UIs are suitable for heads down workers, or are they just more convenient for IT in not having to roll out complex installable applications? Or are browser based apps up to the task? After all modern networks are fast, clever data caching can be built in, and new Javascript engines are claiming to get orders of magnitude faster.

Silverlight and Flash are battling for the new rich Internet application space. I question whether they just provide a nice toolset for building highly dynamic application UIs that roll out easily, or can they really provide a higher performance operation? Don't get me wrong, anything that speeds the design and deployment of applications is a good thing, but when they are really a nice skin on Internet technology, can they offer the performance of a true thick app?

When the standard heads-down applications typically are plain, keyboard driven, frankly having little glitz or glamour, is there a place for rich Internet application technologies? Or will software vendors just adopt them as a sales tool, to out-pretty the other guys.

A post from the Improving New Account Opening blog

Monday, September 15, 2008

Do you trust this blog?

As most educated users of the Web know, there is a lot of misinformation, speculation and lies out there. So who better to trust on the future approaches to help users identify trustworthy sources of information than the inventor of the World Wide Web, Sir Tim Berners-Lee. Reported on the BBC News website, Sir Tim discussed a range of issues facing the Web, as he publicized the creation of the World Wide Web Foundation.

Interestingly, the issues faced by consumers outside the firewall should be concerns for organizations deploying web style collaborative and social tools inside the firewall. In a small organization, my job title and personal contacts are usually enough to generate trust that the information I post on a Sharepoint site or blog is authoritative and can be used appropriately. People know me, or at least know of me, and trust that my role in the organization can help answer a question they have accurately.

In a large organization, as with the Web, reputation is harder to ascertain. Toby Bell at Gartner talks about reputation from many angles, often with the view that reputation can only come from the aggregation of everything you write and link to, as well as your closest contacts. This doesn't give me a view of someone new at a glance though, which is one of the issues that Berners-Lee would like to see addressed, since how many of us have time to read enough to really assess a person's authority.

I'm sure that there is no easy answer to this issue. Much as Wikipedia tries hard to separate truth from fiction, organizations need to be sure that formally published policies, procedures and compliance documents are instantly recognizable and clearly segregated from more democratically published information, however authoritative the author may be. For CYA that seems to be a defensible approach.

I strongly believe in the value of collaborative technologies. I don't know that they will change the world, but certainly as more of us try to travel less, their use will grow, and the risks of 'wild wild web' need to be understood to ensure we all realize their value.

A post from the Improving New Account Opening blog

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

SharePoint for Production Applications?

First, imagine you run a claims department for a large insurance company, or the customer service center for a top-tier bank. Then imagine the many line of business and information systems your employees use every hour of every day to get their jobs done. Finally, consider how much better their productivity and job satisfaction could be if all of the information and resources they needed were presented within a single application environment. No more carpal tunnel syndrome inducing Alt-Tab maneuvers, mornings spent carefully arranging application windows in that early Windows style, or lengthy (dull) training on several very different applications.

I have spoken to many the leaders in many organizations, run by people that you are currently imagining you are, who have recognized the appeal of bringing together all the applications their people use into one place. The approaches that are taken vary, depending on the exact need, and which software industry analyst makes the most compelling pitch. Anything is possible, including enterprise portals, 'roll your own' SOA/EAI applications, consolidation to a single platform in the SAP R/3 style, and presentation with the line of custom applications built on document management and business process management suites. And without naming names, there are many examples of the different approaches becoming extremely successful, or becoming another annoying window on an already overcrowded screen.

SharePoint, accompanied by its enormous marketing budget can't fail to make it into the departments you are imagining you run. Its appeal of being cheap, easy and 'good enough' makes it an important option to be considered. So, ask yourself this:

  1. Does SharePoint offer enough value as a pretty configurable presentation mechanism / portal to make up for the fact that (in my experience) its just painfully slow to use?
  2. Does it provide the integrations you need with the many core systems and information systems you have in place to plug and play (how many BizTalk skills do you have in house)?
  3. Do the Web 2.0 style, collaborative team space capabilities of SharePoint provide application components that truly benefit your workers?
  4. Does your organization need another application layer of 'can do lots of stuff' that pays little attention to the value it offers to the business?

In some cases, the business leaders I have met could answer 'yes' to all of the above, and are starting to try out SharePoint in their environments. In other cases, other business leaders actually have a vision to address the root cause of the mosaic of applications their employees endure. They have asked themselves a different set of questions:

  1. Is there a way to show users just the information they need within the context of a single business application, not a series of segregated application portlets or panels?
  2. Is there a solution that can deliver work and guide users to complete the tasks I know need to be done, rather than having to train them to always remember what must be done next?
  3. Can the skilled knowledge workers have the flexibility to do what they need to do, without being limited by a production line workflow?
  4. Is there a solution that can provide the best of both worlds - a targeted business solution and a flexible platform which allows me to adapt to a changing business environment?

I personally don't think that there is any one answer. As the imagined business leader, you'll be balancing an operations/IT budget against a need to deliver business value in the shortest amount of time. Some organizations will make use of SharePoint where it fits their needs best. Others will try and force fit it into applications it doesn't do well.

As the business leader, I think you have an easy question to ask yourself. Does a software solution help you meet the objectives of the business (increase revenue, reduce expenditure, etc) with the better working practices that it offers, or alternatively just provide an attractive UI and collaboration functionality around your current working practices?

A post from the Improving New Account Opening blog