Enterprise Software and the Deployment Age

In “Tech Has Grown Up,” I wrote about how we’re moving into a new stage of the tech industry’s development. A lot of the bigwig tech people around today made their careers (and/or fortunes) in the 2000-2008 GAFA mega-growth cycle, and as a result, over-learned lessons from that period. Since 2008, GAFA has only increased its dominance over the consumer web. As they say, it’s easier than ever to start a consumer-facing company, and perhaps even to advertise for it; but harder than ever to profitably grow.

I mentioned in that post that I’ve been re-reading this talk by Jerry Neumann called The Deployment Age. It’s really excellent. The gist is that cycles of technological progress tend to look like surges of innovation followed by longer periods of adaptation and – you guessed it – deployment. Multiple strands of technological innovation combine to form productive “systems:” think of how steam engines, metallurgy, industrial production and precision machining all had to come together to make railroads possible. It’s pretty clear that similar productive systems using new tech are forming today – indeed, many are already here.

This tech is already being “deployed” all around us. Certain industries are being swallowed right before our eyes – just take a look at media/journalism and retail. But every meaningful industry is grappling with new technology to understand how it can work in their context. Some companies are doing this well, others aren’t. But the future isn’t everyone becoming a “tech company” any more than we have “electricity companies” or “telephone companies.” To riff on that Peter Drucker quote, techies believe that companies use “tech.” Companies sell shoes. And increasingly, they need technology – in particular, software built to solve their business problems – to help them do so.

GAFA owns the consumer today, but their dominance doesn’t extend into the enterprise, and nor do I necessarily see it doing so. Becoming enterprise software vendors doesn’t really fit with any of these companies strategically, and much less organizationally or culturally. (Predictably, Facebook for Work has not taken industry by storm.) This is, in part, why companies like Salesforce and Adobe have had such stellar success, and why outperforming enterprise-facing startups are regularly snapped up at giant multiples. There is no GAFA for enterprise software to squash you while you’re small. More often than not, your real competition is Excel – or customers simply not giving a shit.

We’re developing technology systems today that allow companies to massively increase their productivity; allocate capital more effectively; better recruit, train, onboard and manage employees; communicate and market to customers; build and deliver their products; manage supply chains; and about a million other things that previously were either impossible or cost-ineffective. Most of the major sectors of the economy are only beginning to ramp up their adoption of these tools, partly because of competitive pressure, and partly with sheer generational change. Some companies will act aggressively to turn themselves into enterprises of the future; others will bow to investor demands not to touch the dividend or rock the boat too much, and thus effectively disarm just when the tools of their business are becoming obsolete. Creative destruction!

The Deployment Age is going to be huge for enterprise software, and somewhat less about GAFA than we’ve seen thus far. The marketing technology boom is only the first example. Just wait.

Oh, by the way – it just so happens that my friend Ben Gaines and I co-wrote a book on Product Management for enterprise software, and we’ll have some big news to share about it very soon. Learn more about it and sign up for updates: MakeItSoBook.com


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