Do You Suffer from Application Sprawl Fatigue?

Aug 12, 2019

Authored by: Scott Hogrefe

A few weeks ago I was at an afternoon get together with a few friends and the conversation, as it usually does with this group, turned into a general “check-in” about work and how everyone was fairing in their jobs. Beyond the typical “same old, same old” comments that come from one in every group, we started talking about technology. 

As you might imagine, I tend to gravitate to geeks and so we’re often talking about a range of things like work hacks through x.ai or calendly, or which Salesforce object a custom field should go on for better reporting (one of us is a serious SFDC guru). This time, however, there was a level of frustration with one friend (we all piled on!) who had recently experienced a feeling that’s becoming more and more familiar in the workplace: Application sprawl fatigue.

What is Application Sprawl Fatigue?

Here are the characteristics of application sprawl fatigue that I captured during our discussion: 

  • The request black hole. Recalling that someone has requested something from you, but not remembering or being able to find the request (the reverse is also true). It’s as though the request went into a black hole and may never be seen again.
  • Content storage wars. Creating a document and not knowing if it was saved in one place or another or if you’re working from a version that’s outdated because the latest one may have been saved somewhere else.
  • “I’ve got you surrounded” messaging techniques. The tendency of some co-workers to use all methods (text, chat, email, etc.) of communication because they’re all available and don’t know which tool to use or they’re impatient in waiting for a response
  • Let’s try this app that my friend said was awesome! The rogue early adopter who wants to buck the trend or standard and “helpfully” introduces “yet another” app that you then have to try out just to work with them. 

It’s you, It’s me, but does it have to be this way?

Interestingly enough, there was decent acknowledgement amongst my friends that we’re all really “part of the problem.” We’ve all guilty of the very things that we were complaining about and at the same time we didn’t arrive at some grand declaration about trying to fix the problem. In fact, the general tone and conclusion was that this was just the “new normal,” and we eventually changed the subject. 

But does it have to be that way? Are we really resigning to the notion that application sprawl fatigue is the price of being hyper-enabled? I’ve never been one to give up and accept things as “just the way it is,” and it just so happens that I work for a place focused on solving some of these challenges. 

Before I go there, though, let’s get a couple things right out in the open. 

The first thing I want to acknowledge is that application sprawl fatigue is a symptom of a suboptimal application portfolio rather than a commentary about the number of applications in an enterprise. Whether you have 50 applications or 500 of them, it matters more that people are able to use them effectively and that you’re able to avoid silos of data or redundancy of processes where it matters. For example, if the sales team loves Box and the engineering team loves Google Drive and engagement and adoption is through the roof for both teams, does it matter that you have both tools? Other than the financial implications, I’d say if it’s not broken, don’t fix it! Sales and engineering don’t collaborate with each other very often and so the sprawl in this situation isn’t fatiguing to either team. 

The second thing to get out in the open is that the problem of application sprawl fatigue can’t be solved through technology alone. This is a problem that has just as much to do with people and processes as it has to do with technology. If my group of friends are any indication, even though we’re all guilty of fueling the proliferation of cloud applications in the workplace, a lot of us have reached a place where the suboptimal application portfolio described above is actually hurting productivity. But change requires leadership and dare I say “adult supervision.” There’s a bit of historical irony in that many of the cloud applications were born out of a disdain for slow-moving IT decisions and projects to roll out enabling technology and control what apps people used. And let’s not take this as guidance to return to the old way of doing things, but IT is truly the department that we need to lean on here.

What are trailblazing CIOs doing about this?

Fortunately within IT there’s a strong acknowledgement that we need to adopt new ways of evaluating and determining which tools are best for the business and so I’ll share what I’m hearing from the best of the best IT leaders I know: 

  • Top-down decision making isn’t what employees are looking for. According to a study by PWC, 73% of people surveyed say they know of systems that would help them produce higher quality work.  In the same survey, only 53% of employees thought the C-suite pays attention to their needs when introducing new technology. 
  • Cost only tells one side of the story. IT has fixated on how much technology costs for a long time and while this is certainly important, it’s hard to factor in the value we’re getting from technology through that lens alone. IT needs to understand the productivity benefits from applications to make informed decisions. 
  • Look beyond provisioning and login data. Spreadsheets that analyze provisioned users and frequency of login are a crude analysis of how an application is being used. Productiv, for example, looks at more than 50 dimensions of SaaS application engagement to give IT a true sense of the value you’re getting from the cloud application.
  • Leverage best-of-breed vendor training. Vendors have a vested interest in seeing high adoption rates of their technology and best-of-breed vendors are more likely to have a deeper level of expertise than a vendor who offers a suite of tools. 
  • Company culture and IT policy go hand-in-hand. If a company is really relaxed about how people get their work done, the IT department needs to reflect that. This may translate into driving for an acceptable set of tools that might be redundant. One company I know was perfectly happy allowing people to pick from three cloud storage tools as it would have run counter to the company culture to restrict people to one. Ultimately the CIO at this company put a lot of trust in the notion that people would make smart decisions based on their collaboration needs — that things would sort themselves out. At that company, they did, but it’s not always going to be the case. 

Beyond these suggestions, I do feel assured by the wisdom of the crowd. This idea that we may have gone a little too far when it comes to how we’re using technology seems to be something I’m hearing more and more these days… of course I still see people walking into telephone poles because they’re fixated on their smartphones, but we’re getting somewhere. I’m also encouraged by the direction I see IT teams Productiv is engage with who all seem to get the points above and are driving full steam ahead to address application sprawl. After all, they, more than any other group, felt the fatigue my friends and I lamented about a few weeks ago — and they’re know that they’re the ones who are going to fix it.

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