Productivity, Enterprise Software, and The Economics of Digital Disruption

The New York Times ran an article recently that made the shocking claim that “Silicon Valley hasn’t saved us from a productivity slowdown.” Reading through the article, and in particular the research by Chad Syverson of the University of Chicago Booth business school on which the NYT article is based, it’s clear the article gets its premise right. Except for one important fact.

The editor forgot to add a word at the end of the headline: Yet. And the writer, an economist named Tyler Cowen, missed the punchline to his own article – Silicon Valley is getting ready to fix the problem he rightfully bemoans. Because, while it’s true productivity is stagnating, the business world is sitting on the cusp of a huge uptake in productivity, one that we haven’t seen in more than a decade.

All it will take is a little re-platforming – okay, a big re-platforming – and some business process change, and some pretty innovative thinking about innovation. All non-trivial, but all possible. And, importantly, the tech vendors – and not just the Silicon Valley gang – are pretty ready to rock and roll. It’s their customers that haven’t saved themselves.

Yet.

For the most part, the Times article, and Syverson’s research, are pretty flawless. The gist of both is that from the Y2K era until 2004 or so, labor productivity was moving up pretty steadily, something that has generally been acknowledged as the result of new technology. (Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan said as much in 1999.) And since 2005, that growth has declined. According to Syverson, the problem is pretty basic:

From 2005 through 2015(Q3), labor productivity growth has averaged 1.3% per year. This is down from a trajectory of 2.8% average annual growth sustained over 1995-2004.

The result, both economists want us to believe, is that $2.7 trillion of unrealized GDP growth has been left on the table, and there is no pretending that the growth is hidden behind the newfangled business models of the Internet and e-commerce that are hard to quantify according to standard measures. The culprit is a decline in productivity growth, plain and simple.

What’s interesting about this number is how relatively close it is to another number based on a completely different measure, from an orthogonally different source. A report in 2014 by consultancy E&Y reported that the relative productivity of capital, as opposed to labor, has been lagging in recent years. The working capital analysis in the E&Y report showed that the huge gains in working capital efficiency that were realized in the early part of the century, as measured by days sales outstanding (DSO) and other measures, have tapered off since the last recession. This has led to the following problem, according to E&Y:

A high-level comparative analysis indicates that the leading 2,000 US and European companies still have up to US$1.3t of cash unnecessarily tied up.

 Okay, it’s an apples to oranges comparison, and the labor productivity number is 2x the working capital number. But, regardless of how different these two analyses are, and how far apart their results are, the two studies are actually talking about the same thing – a drop in productivity growth that is tied to the diminishing effectiveness of technology to maintain historic growth levels. If by historic you’ll permit me to limit the timeframe to the last 20 years.

The reason I think the E&Y report and Syverson and Cowen are talking about the same basic problem is that it’s pretty much a given that the IT platforms of the last two big inflection points – Y2K and the dotcom boom/bust – are getting a little long in the tooth. This is true, in particular, for old-guard companies doing business in traditional markets the old-fashioned way. These companies loaded up on the latest and greatest from the 20th century for all the right reasons when they did (okay, Y2K was a hoax, but there was a lot of IT that desperately needed the upgrade anyway.) And for the most part they got their money’s worth in new productivity gains.

The problem is that the gains of the last generation of enterprise software are last century’s news. Those leading edge business processes and enterprise software of 10 or 20 years ago are now considered by the tech punditocracy and the vendors and forward-thinking customers as legacy anchors holding back innovation and competitiveness. They’re based on an old transaction processing model, running on internal relational databases, with a lousy user experience, no sense of what modern customer engagement means in the 21st century, and they’re expensive to implement, run, and maintain.

No wonder there’s $2.7 trillion in lost US GDP or $1.3 trillion in cash sitting on the sidelines of 2000 global companies doing nothing. That’s what happens when economies are being held back by out-moded processes, and I agree with Cowen and Syverson that tech hasn’t done it’s share to alleviate the problem.

Yet.

Where I take issue with Cowens’ analysis is that he leaves out any demonstrable sense that “Silicon Valley” might actually be in the process of fixing the problem of labor productivity, and, while we’re at it, cash productivity too. And, in many cases, the solutions are in the market or will be available soon. To his credit, Cowen cautiously ends his article by saying “While information technology remains the most likely source of future breakthroughs, Silicon Valley has not saved us just yet,” thus getting the adverb “yet” in just in the nick of time.

And yet…what Cowen is missing is that new technology, new platforms, new applications, and new business processes are sticking their heads up like dandelions after a spring rain. And each offering – every darn one that’s worth anything at all – has solving these issues of labor and cash productivity as a fundamental goal, even if neither concept can be found in most vendors’ marketing campaigns.

Perhaps the most complete sense of the magnitude of this pending shift can be seen in looking at Microsoft Dynamics’ latest incarnation of its flagship ERP system, AX. A recent meeting with the AX team highlighted the rapidity of the productivity shift in two simple slides: one was the UX of an early version AX 2012, the ultimate evolution of 20th century UX design at the time. And the other was the UX design for the new Dynamics AX – based on design principles liberally borrowed from the mobile and cloud experience that consumers have come to expect from the apps and services. As Mike Ehrenberg, a Microsoft technical fellow and CTO of Dynamics, commented when toggling back to the AX 2012 screen after showing me the new Dynamics AX screen, “It’s hard to imagine we thought that was the pinnacle of design” – a recognition of how much things have changed in the five short years since AX 2012 was first released.

What’s underlying the new Dynamics AX user experience, which itself promises significant labor productivity gains, are the newly configured business processes and the tiled “workspaces” that are intended to increase employee productivity based on role and individual preference. There’s online help and training too. Then there’s the efficiency of the Azure cloud on which AX now runs, and its Life Cycle Services ALM service, which takes the cost effectiveness of the cloud and adds huge savings in lifecycle development and deployment costs. And there’s the built-in connectivity to Office 365’s desktop productivity tools, and the PowerBI analytics stack, And so on.

The net of these new services and capabilities should address both labor productivity: workers and customers will be much more efficient. Cash should be much more productive too: IT will stop sopping up huge quantities of capital on massive, multi-year implementations, two-thirds of which will fail to deliver on their goals, all the while running on expensive, in-house hardware. And that’s just the beginning of what a modern, cloud-based ERP system can do.

Microsoft is hardly alone, though I think they are the furthest along. SAP is poised for a similar play with its new Fiori UX, S/4 HANA ERP system and HANA Cloud Platform, though S/4 needs to round out its functionality in order to fully deliver on its productivity promises. Infor has similar designs with its SoHo UX, Infor 10x ERP, and its ION platform. Salesforce.com wants to do something similar with its Lightning UX, its growing partner ecosystem of non-CRM apps, and Force.com. Pretty much across the board, the leading vendors are ready or almost ready to meet the demands for greater productivity.

If only.

This current and pending technological tour-de-force is proof that Silicon Valley is not what’s gating the next wave of productivity gains in labor and working capital. The neglect of “Silicon Valley”, which is the implication of the NYT headline, is a red herring. The tech is there, or on its way – in most cases close enough to touch, or buy, or at least start planning for.

What’s in the way is a combination of customer caution and some confusing vendor marketing. For the most part, even those vendors that have done a good job of describing the value of their new tech offerings haven’t given customers a strong enough case for why these changes are about core business issues and not just cool new technology. The problem with Silicon Valley’s neglect is not about a dearth of new technology, it’s about a dearth of understanding about how to talk to the business leadership about what matters to them, and technology is for the most part not too high on the list.

Meanwhile, many customers who could and should start moving forward have been playing ostrich with innovation, looking at the plethora of new challenges facing them through the same old lens, and therefore doing nothing or, at best, not enough. It’s a tricky dance for many of these companies: preserve what’s good from the past and get the rest of out the way so the company can prepare for the future. Knowing what’s good and what’s passé is far from obvious, and it doesn’t help that every vendor in the market is selling a platform that promises to fix it all, ignoring the fact that asking a customer to consolidate on a single platform is both a very long, hard slog, and not necessarily in the customer’s best interests.

Regardless, Messrs. Cowen and Syverson, and E&Y and countless others are on to something big. We are at an inflection point in the productivity cycle of the global economy, and this is no time to just accept slower productivity growth as inevitable. Whether it’s time to take your fair share of $1.7 trillion or $2.7 trillion or whatever the real number is, or whether it’s time to get your head out of the sand and face a major disruptor about to make you the next Blockbuster, it’s time to act. And acting means taking a hard look at strategic technologies that are no longer delivering steady productivity and find out how to jack them up a notch.

This doesn’t mean killing off old-guard applications like ERP, or driving ERP into the commodity layer and looking for innovation outside the traditional core. It means being ready, willing, and able to turn every dial and fine tune every process in the pursuit of productivity. And it means every company needs to be prepared to save itself, and to do so soon. Waiting for “Silicon Valley” reminds me of watching Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot – in the end you’ve had the chance to witness a first rate tragicomedy, but if it’s action you’re after, you’d better look elsewhere. And, when it comes to saving your company from the ravages of stagnant growth, there’s no better place to start than in your own IT backyard.

One thought on “Productivity, Enterprise Software, and The Economics of Digital Disruption

  1. Pingback: Ariba, Infor, and the Business Network Challenge: Quantum Physics, Big Transformations and Big Barriers | EAConsult

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *