A week under my belt at Intel and I'm starting to figure out the internal systems...at least the common ones like email, calendar, phonebook and internal chat. I am struck again by how much internal systems reinforce culture, or is it vice versa? Of course such systems are designed to make workers more productive while protecting things like privacy and intellectual property. But in my experience corporate systems also contribute to a hive-mind effect that can be unintentionally limiting.
Years ago on my first day at Microsoft I asked for an Internet connection. Two weeks later they lugged in another physical machine, set it up on my credenza and hooked it to the outside world. In early 1994 at Microsoft you couldn't get an outside connection on the same computer as your internal email and files! As a result they weren't thinking much about the Internet...very few Microsoft people ever used it (I was only eligible for an Internet machine because I technically worked in the Research Library group). Microsoft as a company famously came quite late to Internet awareness and that fact was noticeable in their products as well.
Some years later at Symantec I worked on a popular product called ACT!, a personal information manager. ACT! version 3.0 was a rewrite to support 32-bit architecture that included a new feature...support for email. During the years when ACT! 3.0 was written, Symantec's internal emailer system was "cc:mail". When I joined the team during ACT! 4.0 development I was given the task of re-specifying the email feature because I was coming straight from Apple and, like the majority of ACT! customers (but unlike the developers writing ACT!), I had actually *used* emailers other than cc:mail.
In fact, I had used many emailers because in those days Apple encouraged employees to use whatever tools made them most productive (in those days we even saw some PCs floating around because Apple laptops were insanely mediocre at that point) and I am naturally curious. My favorite was a beta tool which allowed aggregation of all your various mail accounts into a single local inbox. I wasn't the only one who loved that feature apparently, since you can find it in today's Apple Mail client.
Now there was nothing in the configuration of their intranet keeping Symantec employees from using other emailers, except for inertia due to familiarity with the approved tool. Because cc:mail included a centralized phonebook feature, most Symantec employees didn't actually know each other's email addresses (and they weren't standardized). And of course it was easier to continue to use cc:mail to get routine tasks done than it was to venture into the unknown. These days there might be more stringent corporate mandates in response to the proliferation of email viruses for instance, but those were halcyon virus-free days.
Did I mention that ACT!'s major competitor was the up and coming Microsoft Outlook, which had a rather specific email architecture that was very tightly integrated into the operating system. I reasoned that we could differentiate for ACT! by offering more flexibility and meeting our customers where they were at instead of forcing them to do work "our way".
My first official action as the owner of the email feature in ACT! 4.0 was to mandate that my engineering team start to use other emailers to discover how they might differ from the known. Oh, the complaining! But slowly they started to realize how cc:mail had limited their experience and their world view of email...and the resulting flexible email feature in ACT! 4.0 contributed to an award-winning release. Best of all was that most of those engineers continued to be curious about what was going on "outside" the firewalls, which was the real win because that curiosity is vital to designing better experiences for customers.
And speaking of a shift from tightly integrated desktop applications...I notice that I now have 50 free gmail accounts to give away. I'll give them to the first 50 Intel employees who ping me on corporate email :-)