Every piece of software I use in the course of academic administration is lousy.
Sure, the systems do what they're supposed to do most of the time, and they're not that difficult to learn how to use. But every single one has numerous design flaws; clunky features that eat up seconds or minutes or hours of the user's day. Repetitive tasks cannot be bundled; instead, each individual task requires numerous separate clicks. There are no keyboard shortcuts to avoid time-wasting pointing-and-clicking. The systems have mind-bogglingly primitive filter and search capabilities. The lay-outs are inefficient; the icons unintuitive; the aesthetics pure Windows 95.
How can companies like SAP and Oracle make billions of dollars in profits by selling products that would struggle to get three stars in the app store?
Enterprise software manufacturers produce inferior products because they can. The very nature of enterprise software means that the market for these products will be dominated by a handful of firms. Potential market entrants are detered by the prohibitive start-up costs; the millions of dollars it takes to develop enterprise software from scratch. Incumbants meanwhile reap profits from their locked-in customer base. The costs of switching from one piece of enterprise software to another are so large that firms will tend stick with their existing systems until they become seriously unsatisfactory.
When my "I can't wake up!" app sends me ungrammatical notifications "No alarm's scheduled", I can just uninstall it and choose another alarm clock from the dozens in the Google Play store. When my workplace software asks me to "action this proposal" I grit my teeth and action it. With competition, the best software wins. Without competition, people mostly just put up with what's on offer.
Another reason why enterprise software is clunky is that ease of use is only one of many criteria that goes into an institution's software purchase decisions. Moreover, even if the committee responsible for selecting software really cares about usability, it's basically impossible to know how user-friendly a particular enterprise software system is going to be until millions of dollars have been spent purchasing and implementing it. And at that point, it's hard to switch to another system.
Yet even the best enterprise software system will be hard to use if it is poorly implemented. In large institutions, implementation is an on-going challenge, because people work in silos. There are few opportunities for the people in the business software silo and the people in the, say, academic administration silo to communicate with each other. For example, I suspect the teaching assistant (TA) management software could allow me to search for TAs by last name as well as student number. But does the person responsible for the running that system know I would like this feature? No. Have I told him or her? No, because I don't know who runs the system.
Yet even if communication barriers can be overcome, there are few incentives for the tech people to start tweaking software that is operating perfectly satisfactorily in response to isolated complaints from a disgruntled associate dean, or an unhappy departmental administrator.
Economists tend to believe in the virtues of markets. Yet when a market is dominated by two or three companies, there is no reason to believe it will produce efficient outcomes, let alone equitable ones. Moreover, even in a so-called market economy, many resources are allocated within institutions. These institutions have centrally planned internal economies - with everything that central planning entails.