For those of you who have followed my research of the collaboration software space, you'll find that I have argued that the real whitespace for vendors is in facilitating interactions between different companies (see examples here and here). This advice, though, has always been given in the spirit of helping vendors enter the market and tell a differentiated story; my goal is always to get product marketers away from spinning tales of travel savings (which everyone does). Recently, I finished a report that explored why intercompany collaboration is important to the actual running of a tech industry business. Like any good story, it's a three-part narrative:
The definition of a B2B tech customer is changing. There was a time when a tech vendor selling to businesses only had to deal with the IT department. As such, the product design and messaging revolved around fulfilling the requirements of a techie audience: speeds and feeds, interoperability and security. Now? Business leaders are involved in technology decisions, shifting the design points of technology and its marketing to ease of use and ability to solve business problems. Further muddling this view, individual information workers are increasingly able to provision their own hardware and software, thanks to Web-based technologies and consumer technologies -- like Apple laptops and iPhones -- that IT departments are grudgingly accepting. The pull of these many groups on tech vendors has complicated the job of tech product managers and marketers: They now have to develop their product for and market it to a wider range of people with different interests.
Last Friday (September 17), I published a case study of Microsoft's Windows and Office Communicator (now Microsoft Lync) teams' use of "productivity games." What are productivity games? Put simply, they are a series of games produced by a small group of defect testers to encourage rank-and-file Microsoft employees to put software through its paces before it is released to the public. As many technology product managers can attest, getting employees of your company to take time away from their tasks to run a program in development and report any problems can be a Sisyphean effort: Bug checking doesn't have the allure of being an exciting, sexy job -- but it happens to be necessary. It will come as a surprise, but since 2006, Microsoft has used five games to look for errors in Windows Vista, Windows 7, and Office Communicator; a sixth game -- Communicate Hope -- is currently in the field to test Microsoft Lync. Why so many games, you ask? Well, they work.
The most successful game Microsoft has launched to date is called the Language Quality Game. It was designed to get employees who could read languages other than English to check that the thousands of user interface translations Microsoft had made in Windows 7 were accurate. The game produced positive results on two dimensions: 4,500 Microsoft employees played the game, and this group had a total of 500,000 viewings of translated Windows 7 UI translations. Because the game went over so well, iterations of it have been used in Office Communicator and Exchange. And others at Microsoft are looking to use games to do other tasks: e.g., a group at Microsoft Office Labs has created a game called Ribbon Hero to encourage people to explore the functionality of the Office 2007 productivity suite.