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The End of the End User

by Joshua Greenbaum | insiderPROFILES

January 1, 2011

If you’ve ever questioned the term “end user,” you’re not alone. In this column, industry analyst Joshua Greenbaum presents “enterprise drivers” as a more fitting label for business users, and he compares SAP training to “drivers’ ed.” Uncover his reasoning behind this analogy, as well as insights into why better enterprise driver education is so crucial today.

What does the term “end user” really mean? The question of what to call those worker bees laboring in the obscurity of the enterprise — the ones who get the real work done — has bedeviled me for years. “End user” has always bothered me because it is reminiscent of terms like “end game” and “end of the road,” or worse, the concept of a “user” in the sense of a substance abuser. I have to believe there’s a better and more positive way to describe where the rubber hits the road in most companies.

I also struggle to understand the challenge that SAP has set out for itself: to capture the hearts and minds of a billion end users in the coming years. I keep wondering if part of the challenge is the term “end user” itself. As SAP looks to increase not just the raw number of people using its software, but the individual and collective value of those people as well, thinking about their roles as more than just end users becomes a very good place to start. 

Viewing Users as Enterprise Drivers

My friend and colleague Michael Doane has coined the term “process driver” as a better way to describe the role of these vital cogs in the global economy. I’ll build off of Doane’s term and use the phrase “enterprise driver.” Think about it: Drivers sit in the driver’s seat and keep their eyes on the road ahead. They move businesses forward responsibly, stepping on the gas or the brakes as needed. Not only does this metaphor of the driver work exceptionally well, but a comparison to drivers’ education — better known as “drivers’ ed” — also helps describe one of the main challenges to the future of enterprise software: users need better training.

Those of us who grew up in the United States most likely remember drivers’ ed as a horrid class in school, but one that we were extremely motivated to do well in. The reason was simple — our reward was a sense of freedom, fun, and purpose. But we also remember the flip side: danger. We watched videos about drunk driving, looked at pictures of fatal accidents, and listened to police officers talk about the dangers of driving under the influence of alcohol and committing other vehicular crimes. The goal was to teach us how driving irresponsibly could have very negative consequences, and how we needed to pay attention to the downside as we enjoyed the upside. Other than instilling a sense of fear, though, most of this classroom teaching was largely worthless compared to the learning that took place behind the wheel. We all knew that the only way to learn how to drive was to physically get into a car and drive it.

That memory of learning by leaving the classroom and doing is how I came to realize that two important things have to happen as the enterprise matures to offer up a billion users to the likes of SAP. First, the term “end user” needs to become extinct, and the era of the “enterprise driver” needs to begin. Second, the way businesses train their users — I mean drivers — also needs to change.

Because this notion of learning by doing carries with it a sense of purpose, huge responsibility, and the potential for disaster, SAP needs to start looking not for end users, but for enterprise drivers. Understanding the distinction between the two will make all the difference.

Instilling a Sense of Freedom, Fun, and Purpose in the Business

If we think of business users as enterprise drivers, then there are a few points to keep in mind about how they relate to the business. Drivers need a destination, and they need directions on how to get there. But if a driver is to get the greatest value out of driving, then he or she also needs the freedom to make course changes in order to optimize the intended route or the purpose of the trip.

That concept of freedom is kind of radical in many companies. Lots of businesses would prefer to see their drivers reduced to riders — all crowded on one bus, driving on the same road to the same destination. While many processes require standardization (and all you Six Sigma acolytes can nod your heads), that rigidity is becoming less and less strict for more and more high-value processes today.

In addition to a little freedom, I would argue that drivers also need to enjoy themselves more. That sense of fun and enjoyment has been a principal selling point for cars since the Ford Model T came off the assembly line and was unveiled to middle-class America. Instilling a sense of fun in the work world is quite counter to the Anglo-Saxon work ethic — and by Anglo-Saxon, I mean the cultural intersection of the US and Germany — but it’s an important aspect of the other main issue that comes with thinking about users as drivers: how to best train these drivers.

Drivers’ Ed: Providing Better SAP Training

Because companies will depend more and more on making sure enterprise drivers are doing a good job behind the wheel, they need better training — better drivers’ ed. We have to improve what Michael Doane calls “process-driver competency.” The title of a white paper he wrote last June says it all: Your Users Are Stumbling and Your Business Is Suffering. The subtitle is even more direct: How Cutting SAP Training Could Make Bad Times Worse.

As Doane outlines, the problem has to do with the generally poor level of training among enterprise drivers in SAP customer companies. This is because, for the most part, drivers’ ed in the SAP market is a lot like drivers’ ed as it was when I was in high school: boring, disconnected with reality, and not relevant to the real world.

Worse yet, there are no gory films about what happens when your enterprise car runs off the road. I’m not being facetious here: Drivers’ ed in the SAP world rarely instructs drivers about the consequences of their actions, for good or bad. Doane’s white paper highlights those consequences in gritty detail — for example, it points to a driver who held up 60% of her company’s invoices because she simply hadn’t been trained to understand the consequences of not processing invoices in a timely fashion.

The fact is that too many drivers today are, largely unwittingly, causing fender benders (or worse) on a regular basis — in part because they are poorly trained, and in part because that training never included a clear understanding of the consequences of bad driving or the rewards of arriving at your destination without a scratch.

Creating a Billion Enterprise Drivers

The moral of this metaphor is simple: SAP customers don’t need to spawn a billion more end users; they need to create a billion enterprise drivers. This means that SAP must equip these enterprise drivers with the right kind of car, a good set of maps, and some leeway as to how they get to their destination.

And these drivers have to be trained behind the wheel — not just in a classroom — in order to ensure that they actually know what they are doing when they take an enterprise’s life in their hands.

End users, it’s time to shed your old name, get in the driver’s seat, and start your engines.

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