There is another problem in that the younger, incoming, workforce has entirely different standards for what constitutes suitable technology for use at work. As consumer electronics have adopted the concept of affordance ... of intuitive usability ... enterprise software used in industry has not. Apart from a numbers gap between the incoming and outgoing workforce, there is a culture gap. The older generation has more of a technocratic attitude, and assumes that the engineer who designed the application that requires them to open five windows and click on five radio buttons to complete a function had a good reason for designing the software in this fashion. The younger generation realizes that this is just poor software design. Good software designed that aims for intuitive usability will become more important than ever. A third problem is one of the loss of informal, tacit knowledge. As the older generation retires, they will take with them decades of knowledge about the operations and equipment of the industries they work for. This means that their retirement will represent a net loss of intellectual capital, which taken in the aggregate, could harm the competitiveness of industry.
Above, IFS AB's Anders Lif presents the new IFS Enterprise Explorer during its beta launch at a 2008 customer summit in Itasca, Ill.
So what can you do about this?
Visualization is becoming more and more important as we drive towards an increased demand for efficiency in companies as well as employees. Human Computer Interaction (HCI) and cognitive science (the learning of how the brain works) becomes important when designing the next generation of business applications.
Research is done in many different areas of visualization and include the hardware aspect of different types of screens and virtual reality environments as well as different ways of illustrating complex data in easy to read ways. Quite often it is about trying to highlight the important few rather than the average many to make system users more efficient.
NASA has for instance developed new control panels for pilots. When the flight is in a normal operation the pilots can read all available instruments but in a critical situation only the most important information is available. Technology is shifting out information and helping the pilot's brain to concentrate on the information that is most important in each moment. These kinds of design principles are starting to affect also more ordinary environments like business applications in the strive to make people more efficient.
In order to further increase the effectiveness of a smaller number of people managing large amounts of data, we are making more and more use of next-generation visualization systems like tree maps that allow the significant few to be identified from among the typical many. Above is an example of an application screen developed to allow stock traders to identify patterns in the market at a single glance.
An interesting example of modern information design is to be found at the www.smartmoney.com/marketmap. This is an illustration of the stock exchange where the value of the market is represented by the page size and each sector and company registered is representing their value by the size of their square. The color of each company square goes from green to red - where green means that the stock value has increased during the day and red the opposite. It is very dense and complex information being illustrated and still it is fairly easy to get an understanding of the market and movements.
In general IT is continuously driving towards more efficient ways of supplying the decision support needed to make companies and people more efficient. The Internet has of course been vital in teaching people new ways to navigate and search for information. Many professional applications have developed a more web-like functionality and for instance added embedded enterprise application search but in most enterprise software, the user experience is like the web before Alta Vista or Google. In order to find something, you paradoxically need to already know where it is among hundreds of screens and query forms. There are standalone enterprise search tools that can index application data through a complex integration project, but this is too costly for most middle-market companies and disrupts the work flow.
New technology such as rich internet application technology is eliminating the last differences between web-based and windows-based applications. Today you are able to work as fast and as graphically advanced no matter if you are working in a web client or a windows client - and there are rather other reasons for choosing one or the other platform.
The social revolution often called Web 2.0 or Enterprise 2.0 (the use of internet as a platform for people to interact) is getting more and more important when designing business applications - especially to improve the efficiency of people and to capture the intellectual property that people are carrying around. Forums, Blogs, and Wiki based articles are all examples of tools that have developed in the social space of internet and proved to be efficient ways of sharing experience and knowledge. These tools are now being included in the design of business applications so that companies can enjoy the same kind of principles in their internal environment as well as in interaction with others.
This will allow soon-to-retire or even retired employees to respond to queries, and will record their wisdom as part of the corporate knowledge base. It will also allow members of unique online supplier user communities to comment and share tips/tricks for various parts of the enterprise application.
Looking at areas of interest for many software designers we can expect that the movements in internet as well as in the consumer market will continue to influence the professional business application software design. Mash ups (where you combine 2 or more existing applications to create something new) are increasing in importance. You can find many examples of this outside the business applications but you start to find good examples of them also in professional environments. IFS and Microsoft have for instance released a mash-up where the service work orders in IFS is visualized on MS Virtual Earth maps - which makes it easier to plan and optimize the work of a service organization.
Other areas that are getting more and more important are:
Mobility. Pervasive computing is increasing in importance and as mobile clients are getting more able - they also increase in importance.
Collaboration. As we are moving towards increased efficiency to handle the never ending competitive pressure that we are all part of facing, efficient collaboration is becoming more important as fewer and fewer people are left to do the work.
Automated decision support, risk management and business analytics are areas that is getting more and more focused.
Finally we can expect to see versions of the social networks such as Facebook find its way into the business applications as it has proved to be an efficient way for people to communicate and share information.
We can be sure that IT will continue to support the increase in efficiency as well as the ability to capture and share peoples know how and experience as we move forward. The retiring baby boomers will be handing over a lot of responsibility to other generations and IT will be part of the solution to make that work.