Unit4 survey looks at the buyer landscape. Part 2, the people element

Profile picture for user gonzodaddy By Den Howlett November 19, 2020
The people element in the survey found important points that suggest an emphasis on meeting user need is now central to product development. That's good news.

Unit4 user bell curve
(from Unit4 survey report)

In the first part of this mini-series, I outlined the findings of a recent Unit4 survey from the overall buyer landscape, noting both similarities and differences between what survey respondents say and what we see among customers. In this second part, I zoom in on what people inside organizations are reporting. Key among the findings related to people are disparities between what users think and what leadership believes about innovation coupled with an ongoing desire for a better user experience than is often the case today. 

On the question of the extent to which users believe their applications are up to date, there is little difference in their view compared to that of leadership, with respondents' answers following a typical bell curve pattern. But on the question of innovation, the picture changes. According to the survey report:

With more than double (22%) believing they are innovators compared to 10% of users. A third feel they are up to date which is similar to that of users. Just over a tenth believe they are late or lagging behind compared to a quarter of users. 56% of DMs in the mid-market feel they are ahead (NET: innovators and early adopters) of the curve, compared to just 41% of DMs in enterprise organizations.

Getting into that detail, the report goes on to say:

Decision makers in the Australia (33%), Singapore (45%) and the US (46%) are more likely to feel they are innovators as are those in Accounting (28%) and those ahead of the curve (41%). Also the more senior the decision maker the more likely they are to believe they are innovators. Decision makers in HR (17%) are more likely than those in IT (7%) to think they are with the late majority. Those in middle management are also more likely to feel they are the late majority (20%) as are those on-prem (18%). 

This level of detail is vitally important to understanding how a one-size-fits all approach to software development is rarely a good idea, except in the most commoditized elements of a software stack. 

These findings should represent a wake-up call for both IT and leadership. In our experience, users know a lot more about how applications perform, the challenges they present, and the benefits they see than leadership or IT. It is, for example, of little use having a great accounting system that produces exquisite reports if the data entry component requires routine rework. the days when users could go to IT requesting reports or features only to be told to get in line for delivery sometime in an unspecified future are over.

On the other hand, leadership needs to be realistic about the degree to which their business models are supported by technology. For me, that has been one of the big lessons of the pandemic. We have long argued that IT, leadership, and users need to collaborate throughout the selection, implementation, and post go-live periods in the application lifecycle but too often that's not the case. We think that vendors have an important role to play in this. Their success depends on customer success, as evidenced through case studies. From our standpoint, it is rare for us to hear from what we term coal face users. the closest we get are occasional calls with CFOs or CHROs. 

Curiously and as an aside, we hear that the pandemic has had a positive impact for some IT organizations because lockdown has provided a breathing space in which they've had time to clean up long-ignored problems. How well that translates to improved operations in the future is yet to be evidenced. 

I was surprised at the extent to which users feel that their workplace applications are less straightforward to use than those in other areas of their life. Regardless of location, 40 to 42% of respondents rated their workplace applications as slightly or significantly less straightforward, with those in the significant category accounting for 15% of respondents. 

Poor user experience has been a bugbear for as long as I have been involved with technology. Misunderstandings between developers and users about requirements figure large in that equation. On occasion, user expectations are beyond the existing software capabilities. Thankfully, that is changing. The mobile-first imperative, most commonly seen in field service operations, is spreading to other parts of the organization. Equally, our smartphones are now so powerful that leadership can run key parts of their business direct from the phone or tablet. That same attention to UX needs to permeate the entire application stack.

Process automation is central to that argument, so it comes as no surprise that at 43%, knowledge workers rank a desire for automation as first on their wishlist of topics considered as helping those workers add value. Next and unsurprisingly, given the pandemic, 39% want better support for remote work while 37% want to collaborate more closely with colleagues. Among decision-makers, 43% rank, making the user experience simple and intuitive ahead of process automation at 39%. While these differences seem modest at face value, they represent a 10% difference when comparing users to decision-makers. Nevertheless, it is good to see that decision-makers' understanding of user experience is relatively well aligned with user desires. This bodes well for the future. 

The survey indicated the extent to which integrated back-office applications are essential in the context of retaining people, with the survey reporting a full 86% to 89% sharing those views. 84% of respondents agreeing that  that data drive people's decisions. The detailed analysis is revealing: 

Decision makers in the UK (94%), Germany (92%), Singapore (94%), and the US (100%) agree applications are important to retaining people. As do Millennials (92%), those ahead of the curve (93%), those in mid-market organizations (92%), and those who made a change since Covid (90%).

Over half of decision-makers in the US are more likely to agree with all of the above statements strongly.  The younger the company, the more likely the decision-maker is to agree back-office systems are integrated with People Systems. Those with new vendors (94%) are more likely to agree that people's decisions are driven by data, as are those from the UK (96%), Singapore (94%), France (87%), and Germany (86%). Those in IT/Tech (86% compared to 74% ) are more likely to agree people's decisions are driven by data and enterprise apps are important to retaining people (91% compared to 79%) than people in HR. 

These last findings are new to me. there are plenty of users who will share that using certain enterprise-grade applications is a pain, but absent of a refresh; they've figured workarounds. It will be interesting to get the color behind these results to understand better what makes people provide these answers. However, we also regularly hear that millennials and those classed as digital natives are more vocal in their condemnation of legacy applications. Given that people in the 25-35 year age group are now entering senior leadership positions, maturity may influence their thinking. If that is true, then vendors need to pay careful attention. There is nothing worse than a vendor found to be irrelevant, but that's where this line of thinking goes. 

My take

While the findings covered in the first part of this mini-series provide good food for thought, the findings in this second part should serve as a reminder to vendors that users are important. The pandemic has certainly put the spotlight on the user experience in ways that have, for too often, been seen as secondary to baseline functionality. That has to be seen as a positive. From a Unit4 perspective, this is all good news. Under Mike Ettling's leadership, we have witnessed a sharp focus on the people element in the business equation that encompasses people, process, and technology. The survey results add both emphasis and validation for his taking that position.

You can argue that the results are self-serving for marketing purposes as a vendor-sponsored  survey. Under most circumstances, I would agree but on this occasion, the methodology has enough substance to view it as a solid piece of informative work from which everyone in the Unit4 enterprise applications ecosystem will benefit.