Who should provide your business apps?

Your business uses services and products from vendors of all stripes: your fleet of vehicles is supplied by a dealership (like a Ford or Chrysler or GM dealership); your internet and phone access is supplied by a communications services company (like Comcast or Telus); your computers and office equipment are obtained from an office-supplies company (like Staples or Office Depot); and so on. You would not contemplate building your own cars for your fleet. Nor would you consider designing and building your own cloud storage, or cell towers. Instead, you sign up for a decent plan and pay for the products and services that support your business’s needs. So what’s a good approach for your business’s technology solutions? Let’s review what’s been happening.

Lay of the Land – Rocks and Hard Places

In my experience, most companies opt to build their business solutions in-house. They choose to do this because: their business processes are their ‘magic sauce’; its what distinguishes them in their sphere of influence; and they want to have their own solutions to reflect what differentiates them and makes them special. Additionally, data and user interface developers are already on staff – possibly to support existing vendor systems, like Accounting. Also, they prefer to not have to deal with a large, faceless ERP company with an expensive solution, and that involves a large upfront expense, plus a long deployment cycle, and that results in a basic system that continues to require handling for the ‘special’ aspects of the business. Finally, they opt to spend the money on in-house people that could help to build an in-house ability to support all of their in-house solution needs. Many of these companies have spent decades building and deploying in-house built solutions in support of their core business. While the developers of these solutions are knowledgeable in coding and current database and UX (user experience) technology, the products that they deliver usually under-perform. This causes significant in-house stress and strife. A major reason for this lack of expected performance is directly traceable to a lack of adherence to basic project management processes for managing the development project: no charter exists, no clear definition of scope, a non-existent and/or not-engaged and/or not knowledgeable steering team, no defined plan of action, insufficient progress tracking, etc. This is not too surprising, given that the solution development and project management aspects of these projects is not a core business of the company.

Furthermore, these companies know that they need solutions, and are willing to do what they can until they get them. So, they use workarounds tools like the productivity tools provided by Microsoft, Google, Oracle and others (ex. Excel, Word, Outlook, Google Docs, GMail, Primavera, MS Project, etc). As teams get comfortable with these workaround tools, the design specifications for an in-house solution are affected, usually by requiring less of the in-house solution. This inevitably leads to an under-performing, patchwork solution landscape for the business.

Fork in the Road: Custom or Configurable?

So, if a big software vendor is not the ‘right’ answer, and an in-house development approach has shortcomings, what other options should a business consider? A custom solution shop is an approach that is often adopted. This custom shop approach will certainly have the required tight, project-managed approach, and you will get exactly what you specify. The cost will not be a surprise, as you will be aware of it ahead of time. So, this is the best of all worlds, right? Admittedly, this is a logical approach for most contracted work. For example, if you want to have a footbridge over a busy road, you contract with an Engineer to design it. You then contract with a Contractor to build it. When its built, you have your footbridge. Mission accomplished. It will still be a usable footbridge next year, and 20 years from now. Business solutions, however, are not nearly as cut and dried, though. Once you have your Cost Control or Procurement solutions built, conditions inevitably arise that require you to do something different or additional to the specified approach. For example, a client may want to have some additional functionality available – that was not planned for in the original design. You may be able to provide the added functionality by exporting data from the system and using spreadsheets. You may write a new contract to the solution developer to add the missing functionality. As this is a custom shop, they will follow a preset sequence to handle issues or tickets and you are not likely to benefit from shortcuts that would accrue from using the same development team. They may even out-source the work. So, you will have to pay more, for less and wait for it.

I work for a company that provides yet another alternative: A configurable business solution. This type of solution includes: a standard model for business data management (using our metadata framework); methods to integrate with your legacy systems; a browser-based standard appearance of user tools (that look like familiar spreadsheets and forms); a delivery system that enables your data to move from the secure cloud to you working on multiple, mobile devices. We do not have build what you need from scratch – much of it already exists and simply needs to be configured to your required purpose. And, as we are a mature company with a mature foundation, we have a long track record of successful solutions that we leverage to minimize the time we need to spend on building your business app. In fact, this configuration model is so different, that we can commit to building your app before you pay for using it!

Be Brave in this New World

As your business gets caught up in the ‘let’s get digitized’ frenzy, it should help to know that there are rational, reasonable and less risky ways to get there. And that these are less expensive than what you are already spending on in-house development! Be aware that each single-purpose app (ex. HR, business development, Timekeeping, etc.) that you add to your solution landscape introduces a fragmented, silo-mentality: an island of expertise in just that app. When some team members are experts in just one app, they are less flexible to help you in other areas. Single-purpose, or non-integrated apps, while easy to engage with and deploy, can be a trap that: may completely derail; at a minimum, postpones; and at best complicates; your inevitable arrival at your optimal digitized steady-state.

The Answer

If you found information useful, please let me know. I’d like to hear about your real-world experiences as well. To answer the question posed in the title: A cloud solution provider with sufficient expertise in digitizing the business processes that you wish to improve, so that you do not have to develop them ‘on your dime’: you just pay for the service. And instead, focus on your business.

Note: As always, company and product names used in the article are the property of their respective owners and were used here for illustration only.