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The Interface Is the Computer: Saving American Manufacturing One User at a Time

by Joshua Greenbaum

August 11, 2009

Expanding on Hasso Plattner’s keynote address at Sapphire ’06 in Orlando, Josh makes the case that software interfaces just aren’t enough fun. This is particularly important in the manufacturing industry where bad interface design can increase training needs and decrease productivity.

“Don’t believe everything you think” is a bumper sticker that seems to be popular in the semi-weird town of Berkeley, California, where I have both home and office. But after attending a two-day conference on the state of the manufacturing industry, I came away with some decidedly different thinking about som e pretty important issues in today’s global market. With that shift came some new insights into SAP’s plans for changing the interfaces that define how its software is used.

One of the things I thought heading into this conference was that outsourcing was killing American manufacturing, worker by outsourced worker, a collective death by a thousand job cuts. The other notion was that manufacturers have a surplus of talent on which to draw when it comes to filling the few jobs remaining in American manufacturing. And the third notion was that the 21st century heralded the beginning of the end of manufacturing in this country, once and for all.

What relevance do these preconceived notions have with SAP’s design goals? No less than this: Interface design can help save American manufacturing. And SAP, which has been investing heavily in changing the face of its software, is hoping to lead the charge.

The Value of Design

Dial back to last May’s Sapphire ’06 users conference in Orlando. SAP’s eminence grise, Hasso Plattner, gave an impassioned talk on the value of design in the development of enterprise software. Plattner’s message was simple, and would sound simplistic if it weren’t for the fact that so much interface design violates this first principle: Understand how your users work. Or, as Plattner put it: “Great designers connect to users through empathy.”

That plea for understanding led Plattner to make an even more radical suggestion: “When we see how much the world is driven by fun,” Plattner said, “we should apply this to … enterprise systems much more than we do.”

In other words, workers just want to have fun, and interface design should facilitate that sense of fun, particularly as an aid to productivity and employee satisfaction. It would have been a funny — as in ridiculous — idea, if it weren’t for the fact that, once again, Plattner was on to something — especially, but not exclusively, when it comes to SAP and the plight of American manufacturing. Because hidden behind the doomsday reports of the end of manufacturing is an amazing success story: Manufacturing output is up 700 percent since 1940, a rate of 3.7 percent growth per year that actually exceeds the rest of the non-farm economy.

Productivity is up, too: American manufacturing today uses fewer than 200 workers to produce what it took a thousand workers to produce in the years following World War II. The overall manufacturing sector is actually larger — not smaller, as the doomsayers would have you believe — consistently outpacing the growth of the overall gross domestic product (GDP) over the last 50 years.

What’s even more impressive about this overall growth is that it has been continuous, despite the intensive competitive pressure from Asia, Latin America, and Eastern Europe. And bear in mind that continuous growth in manufacturing at a rate greater than the GDP, year in and year out — at a time when manufacturing employment has been dropping — means that productivity gains have been growing even faster. Not bad for a sector that everyone talks about as though it were on its last legs.

Productivity gains of this magnitude don’t just fall out of a tree, and they don’t come from reading management books and signing up for high-priced seminars. This level of consistent growth can only come from applying more best practices and more technology at the manufacturing site — both on the shop floor and in the back office.

Feeding this continuous, technology-fed growth has placed American manufacturing in a bit of a quandary. The days of the uneducated factory rat pulling down a healthy wage on an assembly line are waning, as demand for technological smarts replaces brawn and endurance as the primary criteria for success. In other words, manufacturing is becoming a high-tech job. Despite massive layoffs and thousands of unemployed manufacturing workers, American manufacturers are increasingly desperate to attract tech-savvy workers who have traditionally shunned what they consider to be “smokestack” industries.

As speaker after speaker at the manufacturing conference bemoaned the fact that they have trouble attracting a workforce that is technologically sophisticated and must often be satisfied to work with intelligent but undereducated employees who need lots of training, Plattner’s notion that interfaces could be both meaningful and fun started making sense.

Making SAP’s interfaces fun, intuitive, and productive can have two very significant impacts on these beleaguered manufacturers. The first is in attracting the best minds from technical and business schools to their high-tech factories: Providing the latest and greatest in software, built at the leading edge of the software industry, and supporting the best practices of a highly productive, technology-intensive manufacturing industry should go a long way toward attracting the kind of talent that is needed to run the high-tech factory of tomorrow. Call it, “Gee-whiz” factor meets “gee-whiz” factory: New, leading-edge interfaces should help make manufacturing “cool” again, and bring in a much-needed infusion of high-tech talent.

But wait, there’s more. Good interface design will also make a difference in attracting — and deploying — the undereducated, as well. If Plattner’s theories are put into use, how the job needs to get done and how it gets done will be one and the same, at which point manufacturers will be able to take those smart but less-than-tech-savvy workers and get them up to speed — and productivity — in record time.

Then, I predict, we’ll see another huge jump in productivity growth. Remember, while overall productivity growth has exceeded the rate of GDP growth for 50 years, the impact of software technology on productivity in manufacturing is relatively recent. According to Alan Greenspan, the former head of the Federal Reserve, IT didn’t even begin to make a significant impact on overall productivity until about 10 years ago. Take this relatively recent phenomenon, add new interfaces intended to directly improve individual user productivity, and you’ll see a major jump in productivity to rival anything we’ve seen in the last 50 years, as well as greater user acceptance and maybe some more “fun,” too.

Either way, the better interface is the way to go, assuming that behind the interfaces are the very best in best practices. That’s the rest of SAP’s job, and while it’s a monumental one, it would be a lot of wasted effort if spent on a poorly designed interface.

Having a Little Fun

A lot more than just a pretty interface is needed to save American manufacturing, but making the factory safe for the tech-savvy youth of tomorrow is more than an idea whose time has come. It’s been brewing for quite a while — credit Plattner for getting out in front of the market with a solution that could help keep American manufacturing competitive for another 50 years — and maybe let everyone have a little fun, for a change.

Joshua Greenbaum is a market research analyst and consultant specializing in the intersection of enterprise applications and e-business. Greenbaum has more than 15 years of experience in the industry as a computer programmer, systems analyst, author, and consultant. Before starting his own firm, Enterprise Applications Consulting (www., he was the founding director of the Packaged Software Strategies Service for Hurwitz Group.


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