Who SUNCS at your office? Probably everyone.

So you’ve heard about BYOD. But not about SUNCS. Yet it is probably more widespread; odds are that you have more than one co-worker in your office that SUNCS. It is rarely acknowledged – but in fact, it permeates many organizations.

SUNCS stands for Secretly Using Non-Corporate Software – because the usability of systems inside corporations is far behind what is available to us as consumers.

In 2012, for example, it transpired that officials at the Swedish State Department regularly used Gmail or Hotmail (translated) for communication with Swedish embassies, diplomats and other agencies (translated) – and that even the Secretary of State himself, Mr. Carl Bildt, did it.

Portrait of Carl Bildt, with text Carl Bildt SUNCS at workThrough his press secretary, Mr. Bildt casually remarked that the official e-mail system of the Government was so hard to use that he didn’t bother with it but for the most sensitive documents and messages (a bit in English here).

The unique thing was not the practice in itself, nor that it happened in the highest political circles. Having done some work for the government as a consultant, I’ve found SUNCS at many levels. Unique, though, was that it was so matter-of-factly admitted, by the highest boss as well. (Probably Carl Bildt, famous for being a ”Teflon politician”, was the only one who could have gotten away with it.)

Secretly Using Non-Corporate Software, or SUNCS, is in fact widespread in most organizations. Some typical examples:

  • Although Sharepoint might be the prescribed company platform for storing documents, it is so hard to find anything on it, that colleagues will share documents via Dropbox instead.
  • While there might be a budget forecasting system in the org, in reality people will use Excel – afterwards spending time adapting the result so it fits in the awkward format of the ”official” software.
  • And instead of the cumbersome corporate project planning system, people will book meetings with services like Doodle and organize collaboration through brilliant and simple, easy-to-use apps like Trello.

SUNCS is probably much bigger than BYOD (Bring Your Own Device), since you can do it without attracting the immediate attention of the IT department – or co-workers. It is often known to everyone, though, but not talked openly about.

And by no means is SUNCS unique to Sweden. In August 2013, it was discovered that doctors at the Oregon Health Sciences University stored information about several thousand patients on Google Drive – and had been doing so for the past two years.

So what is the problem when someone SUNCS? In some cases, there might be a security concern when external or cloud-based services are used for sensitive information. (At the Swedish State Department, eventually someone accidentally did send secret documents through the wrong channel.) On the other hand, in the light of recent events, even the security of ”official” services is seriously in doubt.

To me, the most interesting thing with SUNCS is that it points at ”the elephant in the room” that no one speaks openly about: the poor usability of enterprise systems. The co-worker that SUNCS is probably just trying to do her job in the best possible way, avoiding time-wasting struggles with awkward, outdated and inefficient systems.

About the Oregon case, David Do, who is both an MD and an agile software developer, writes that

”… this incident pretty much highlights the sorry state of information systems within the hospital and the unfulfilled need by physicians for tools that facilitate workflow and patient care.”

What the Recent Data Breach Says About the State of Health IT
(The Health Care Blog, Aug 11, 2013)

Doctors (in Oregon and elsewhere) need a short summary of each patient’s health and treatment, David Do explains. But the Electronic Medical Record system used does not have a good way to store information in that format (instead, EMRs are often so full of detail that vital information is hidden). Additionally, a doctor has no way of editing a summary in real-time to communicate with co-workers what still needs to be done – other than Google Drive. (Do read the comments to David’s piece, too – they’re very clarifying about the current state of most software.)

The extent to which people SUNCS shows that the investment the company did in whatever system people are supposed to use, is wasted.

And if people first use non-corporate software to get their job done, and then must ”adapt and insert” their work into the official system, every task takes twice the time – adding to inefficiency.

SUNCS was here before BYOD, and is probably bigger. And unless we take on the problems with enterprise software that sucks, it will grow even bigger. An older generation of workers toiled under their systems, not aware that there were simpler, more effective ways of accomplishing the same task. A younger generation will without doubt compare the awkward user experiences with services that they’re used to – Facebook, Dropbox, Gmail, Spotify, and many others – that they have access to as consumers, and simply not put up with lagging enterprise software.

The gap between enterprise and consumer software is widening. Enterprise software needs to catch up. We can, and must, demand consumer-grade usability at work, too.
Update: Hillary Clinton joins the campaign 😉 (March 11, 2015)

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Related reading: The doctor that rocks the mouse
What’s the waiter doing with the computer screen?

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