As others have pointed out, enterprise applications can be annoying beasts to deal with. Most of us are familiar with a time sheet application that seems to require more effort entering the time than it did in accruing it, or the order management application that requires four screens of data but spits out an error and forces you to start again unless all the data is perfectly correct. (Hard to use procurement applications make it difficult to buy stuff, though this might be how they are intended to function.) Enterprise applications, everything from time sheets through to portals and collaboration platforms, seem to put usability last on the list of priorities.

However, usability has moved beyond a simple question of lower training costs and happier employees. The ongoing commoditization of applications means that the value in our business is shifting from our ability to pump large volumes of transactions to how effectively we can solve complex problems, and competitive advantage is become increasing driven by our employees knowledge and their ability to apply it in solving these problems. If we can deal with stock-outs more efficiently then we can keep less stock on hand and operate a leaner supply chain. Improving how we determine financial adequacy allows us to hold lower capital reserves, freeing up cash that we can put to other more productive uses. Providing joined-up support for our mortgage product model allows us to put the model directly in the hands of our clients, letting them configure their own, personal, home loan. Our ability to differentiate lies in these creative, manual tasks that live between applications and rest firmly in our employees hands.

Marco Iansiti brought this into sharp relief through his work at Harvard Business Review when he measured the efficiency of deployment of IT, and not cost, and correlated upper quartile efficiency with upper quartile sales revenue growth. How we manage the operation of a business process is becoming more important that the business process itself. When our employees are focused on solving a problem, any detour on the journey from problem to solution as they deal with a fragmented and inconsistent work environment will have a material impact on the outcome. This could range from employees not being as productive as they could be, through to disasters caused by employees making critical decisions that rely on fragmented and out of date data sets that they were forced to cobble together from overly complex and confusing application interfaces.

When we’re deploying our next enterprise application we should flip the problem over and focus on how employees will use it as part of their work environment. What is the employee trying to achieve when they deal with the application? What information and functionality do they require? Does it support their decision making processes, or is it a distraction? How does it fit into their pallet of existing tools? How will the application ensure employees are focused on the task at hand, creating value, rather dealing with the application’s limitations or a confusing interface.

Using applications to create a supportive information environment, rather than to simply manage data, will result in employees making better decisions faster. This is something we can leverage to create a competitive advantage.