Employees need race cars, not stagecoaches

If we want modern app experiences at work, we need a fresh approach to building them

Applying the principles of consumer app design to enterprise software creates modern experiences.

Enterprise app development is stuck in the past. Despite major advances in mobile, machine learning, natural language understanding, and predictive analytics, we’re still trying to get work done using outdated, clunky apps that make us feel like we’re managing tractor part inventory on a steam-powered mainframe.

Employees increasingly expect enterprise software to deliver the intuitive app experiences they take for granted outside work. Think about it. When we want to order a meal, hail a ride, buy household goods, or connect with someone on social media, we simply tap and swipe on our phones. So why do enterprises still have to navigate endless dropdown menus and fill out non-intuitive web forms on our desktops?

Why don’t more enterprise apps trigger digital workflows that automatically deliver the product or service we need? When I order a ride on Uber or Lyft, the app connects me to a driver and maps her progress to the pickup spot in real time. I don’t have to fill out a lengthy web form that gets routed to a dispatcher who calls me back when (and if) she identifies a driver.

Why can’t I simply type what I want in my native tongue and let a virtual agent figure out the rest? For that matter, why don’t more business apps just solve my problem before I know it exists? Or make intelligent recommendations, in the same way that a streaming media service recommends new shows that match my interests?

Inside the stagecoach factory

Too many IT departments are building stagecoaches for employees who demand race cars. It’s time to blow up the stagecoach factory once and for all. Employees need modern enterprise apps to be productive and happy at work. If you give them race cars to drive, your entire company will move faster.

Here’s how it works in many organizations. Let’s say you just dove into a swimming pool, forgetting your company phone was still with you. Maybe you’re a business customer who has an issue with a software product. Maybe you’re a sales rep trying to close a deal, and you need to know what kind of discount you can offer your customer. Or maybe you need to adjust your benefits because you just had a baby.

Too many IT departments are building stagecoaches for employees who demand race cars.

In all these cases, you can fire off an email to a department alias and hope they respond. Or you can fire up your laptop, log in to the company intranet, search through 8–10 screens of irrelevant information, and finally land on a request form.

You fill out the form and hit “Send.” That’s when the real fun begins. The form gets placed in a queue for review by an overworked employee who would rather be doing something more meaningful with her time than solving the same problem over and over again. Days or weeks later, you get a callback from a different agent who asks you to repeat all the information you entered in the form. Eventually, if you’re lucky, you might get a new phone, close that deal, or obtain health coverage for your child.

Modern app design 101

There’s a better way, and it involves applying the principles of consumer app design to enterprise software. Here are the key attributes of a modern enterprise app:

  • Chatbot interfaces should be the default for most apps.
  • Intelligent search should be built in from the ground up, not bolted on later. After all, nearly everything we do starts with search.
  • AI and machine learning should be built into every aspect of the app, to enable intelligent prediction, smarter decision making, and personalized suggestions.
  • Your AI/ML should connect with digital workflows so you can immediately move from insight to action to outcomes.
  • Every app should be built on a DevSecOps model that enables rapid iteration without compromising security.

Crucially, your app builders need a common platform with one architecture and one data model so that all the component technologies are integrated and readily available. And you need a new organizational model. Agile and DevOps are table stakes. What you really need is an org where IT and the business are fully integrated and where development, operations, and analytics are all at the table together.

Enterprise apps on parade

That’s how we approach app development at ServiceNow. We have an operating model that maintains and governs technology while enabling teams to innovate and build apps on a scalable, cloud-based platform aligned to strategic business outcomes and customer feedback loops.

Here are recent examples of modern apps built on the Now Platform. ServiceNow sales teams benefit from a customer churn prediction app that uses AI/ML to predict when we’re at risk of losing a customer. The prediction automatically triggers a digital workflow in the form of a playbook that our account reps can follow to satisfy the customer’s concerns.

Our employee experience team is working on a new app designed to help distributed employees build stronger bonds outside their immediate teams. New Microsoft research suggests that one year into the COVID-19 pandemic, employees are becoming more siloed. This trend is especially pronounced among new hires, many of whom have never met their teammates or even their manager in person.

As new employees join, our intelligent onboarding app will help them enrich their user profile by asking questions. It will use machine learning and AI to mine their resume, profile, and social media activity for information about skills, interests, and preferences. The app will then recommend employees to connect with, affinity groups to join, and volunteer opportunities to pursue. The goal is to replace some of the social capital lost when employees can’t work and socialize with their colleagues in person.

There are literally thousands of similar use cases in the enterprise, each one addressable with a modern app. Increasingly, these apps can be built using low-code platforms that allow citizen developers to use prebuilt templates and a simple, drag-and-drop interface to develop applications.

In short, software isn’t a business tool anymore. It is the business. To survive and thrive in the digital economy, you need modern apps running on a common digital platform.