A workplace by any other name

Over the past few months the struggle by consulting firms and software vendors to develop flashy new words for their products and services has been interesting and, to me, puzzling.

Yes, I know that it has to do with marketing, advertising and differentiation from the competition. But it seems that if you take almost any word in any language and hang an “e” in front of it, you can copyright it or register it and then charge big dollars for the product or service it represents.

I find the whole exercise a challenge to logic. Did you know that there are at least three companies using “e-workplace” to describe services or products? One of them is the name of a company. Each e-workplace appears to have a copyright or be a registered trademark. The intention is probably to prevent any other company from using the word to describe their products or services. I suppose it depends on which state, province or country the business is located, as otherwise there would only be one of them.

There are a number of companies around that have been using e-workplace for years as a convenient way to describe the computer desktop (read: screen) rearranged from the original version into one that includes a range of internal and external links representing the business at hand. They were named e-workplace to describe the computer environment and to differentiate it from the real workplace of desks, chairs and assorted other office furniture.

Typically, the e-workplace for an oil company is different from that of a bank (although these days one wonders), and both are different from that of a large construction firm or a government agency. The Key Performance Indicators will be different. The business rules will be different. Sales indicators will be similar, but the measurements and production parameters will be different. Government applications are very interesting and can become very complex because of the diversity of services, the tight financial constraints and various compliance measures. So what’s my point? Caveat emptor, that’s what. When you think about it, the first question you need to ask is, “What exactly does your e-workplace represent?” Beware the answer, “Everything you need to manage your business.”

As I pointed out earlier, each finished version needs to address the business at hand. This is based on the simple premise that business drives technology; technology enables business rather than the other way around. I’d copyright the last sentence except that it’s been used since at least 1896 by Fayol and probably earlier than that by an engineer on contract to the Roman Empire as it expanded through Europe. Mind you, they probably said it in French and Latin respectively so maybe there’s hope that I can copyright it in English, collect big bucks and retire.

The point is that when we look to buy software or services, we need to look at the end result rather than the flashy words. I think I’d rather approach an e-workplace with someone that knows my business, a company that has been in business since at least the pre-dot com era and one that has the intellectual capacity and experience to help me with the challenges I’m addressing. I think I’d also be wary of the vendor that offers me a Cadillac solution to a Volkswagen problem. I would choose a reliable resolution rather than one that almost meets my requirements but includes a range of functions I don’t really need. Maybe we need to cut through the jargon to the cold hard real words of business. Words like efficiency, accuracy, clarity, reliability and service all come to mind. If you think it makes a difference, you can hang an “e” in front of them all.

Horner is a partner at Sierra Systems Group Inc. in Vancouver. He can be reached at alhorner@sierrasystems.com.