The Illusory Promise of Ubiquitous Enterprise Software

By Timothy Kasbe, COO, Gloria Jeans Company, Guest Blogger*

The Technology community celebrates the rise of software in all spheres of life. Christopher Steiner calls it “Algorithms Rule the World.” Andreessen Horowitz answers, “Why Software is Eating the World.” The message is clear:  Finally software is being put in the center of our lives. Software generates information and, in return, information changes software, and a beautiful cycle of improvement continues.

But software in the consumer world is progressing more quickly, and in a more relevant Timothy Kasbeand agile manner, than in the enterprise world. An extreme example is of a business that lets a software company be its strategic partner and allows it to call the shots on all technology decisions. After five years of the software vendor having free rein over the customer, the software sold is not operational. All bills are paid, and the software engineers and consultants have happily gone home or on to their other customers.

In 2009, I asked a famous mobile device company in Canada to give us their software development kit so that we could deploy our internal information intelligence platform via their device. After numerous requests, we had no luck, whereas we had instant success in deploying this through the app store of their competitor in Cupertino! Way back then, we saw the writing on the wall for our Canadian mobile device provider.

Far too often we’ve seen the same situation repeated over and over again. Be it with SAP AG [NASDAQ: SAP], Salesforce.com [NASDAQ: CRM], Zoho or a thousand other examples, we see software solutions that seem to require that a company change its business processes to conform to the software’s internal model of reality―instead of allowing the software to conform to the business’ external model of reality.  The alternative is lengthy and costly “integration” of existing systems and processes with the offending ERP or CRM system, which never works quite as intended and always takes longer and costs more than estimated, generally coupled with a terrible user experience.

This is a far cry from consumer applications like Facebook [NASDAQ: FB], Twitter, Gmail, Instagram, Amazon [NASDAQ: AMZN] or YouTube, which give us an instant update of graphic, video or text content from any corner of our planet to any other corner of our planet. Our customers are instrumented with powerful devices, with these systems forever raising the bar in their instant response times, elegantly simple user interfaces, and as Clay Shirky aptly puts it, “their technology so pervasive as to be invisible.” And, when things are invisible, they are useful. This is our reality:  a world outside the four walls of the enterprise supplying powerful devices with amazingly innovative software iterating faster than we can blink inside the enterprise.

Enterprise software companies will continue to face difficulties, if not irrelevance, unless they embrace the new normal of the consumer software advances as outlined above. We have already seen some enterprise software companies go away almost as fast as they came on the scene.

What we need instead is a revolution in the way we view industry systems like these.  Why can’t enterprise software professionals assume we know our business rather than trying to teach our business to us?  What if instead we could teach the enterprise software system our processes? With advances in machine learning and the Semantic Web, this might just be possible.

So, instead of giving us a fixed, inflexible solution, you could give us a set of building blocks that could be recombined in an infinite number of ways based on different sets of common processes to provide the agility businesses need. Or let us select from a large number of template processes provided by others in our industries.

The widespread use of Excel in the enterprise is a direct result of the failure of enterprise software to provide flexible, easy-to-use systems that support our processes in an almost invisible manner. Most companies are ashamed to admit it, but users make more productive output on Excel than on any ERP, CRM, MRP or other system. It’s heartbreaking, as Excel represents employee isolation, anti-collaboration, lack of process discipline, and shadow processing for which it was never intended. The lesson, however, is that it is easy to learn, useful and provides users with a platform to produce artifacts that are not hardwired applications designed and agreed-to by only a few business analysts in the enterprise and then stuffed down rest of the enterprise’s throats.

For those who wake up and smell the coffee, there is still time to turn the intellectual wasteland of enterprise software monoliths into a new normal of a useful systems age.

Timothy Kasbe is the Chief Operating Officer of Gloria Jeans Company, based in Rostov On Don, in the Russian Federation. Formerly, Mr. Kasbe was the CIO at Reliance Industries Ltd. [RIL: IN] in Mumbai, India and Sears Holdings Corporation [NASDAQ: SHLD] in Chicago, IL, USA. He serves as distinguished visiting scholar at Stanford University, Stanford, CA.

* Thanks to my good friend and trusted colleague Timothy Kasbe for sharing this insightful and thought-provoking post with the Koa Lab Blog as a guest blogger. Timothy has a unique ability to integrate seamlessly the needs of large commercial organizations and the benefits of innovative new information technologies. Timothy and I have worked together over the past 20 years across many different companies and projects, and through those many experiences we have become great friends. – Andy Palmer

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2 Responses to The Illusory Promise of Ubiquitous Enterprise Software

  1. Donny Askin says:

    Impressive insight. Frankly, we are working to put configurability including workflow and process definition into our products. Sometimes the feedback related to that is, “too many choices, just show us best practices.” I guess, “You can please some of the people all of the time, but all of the people only some of the time.”

  2. Ernie Schell says:

    This is a critical issue for enterprise software solutions. I have spent the last 30 years consulting with direct merchants (catalog and eCommerce + retail) on Order Management and Fulfillment solutions. My modus operandi is to help clients specify their needs and requirements and help them select the solution that will best meet those needs, based on an RFP process. While most of the time this works out well, over the years I observed two troubling syndromes. (1) Poor and mismanaged implementations, even of systems with few or no modifications. That’s why I have concentrated more on that phase during the last five years. But it is time-consuming and frustrating to keep the Change Team on track, let alone the rest of the company. (2) A far more insidious problem is companies that are adamant about supporting new business rules — a major driver for the new solution — and actually do implement them as desired… but then fail to make much use of these new functions (and yes, sometimes retreating to their old Excel habits). In some cases, this is because the “sponsor” of the new functions has left the company. In other cases, middle and upper management simply have unrealistic ideas and goals, while the people in the call center and the warehouse have a much more practical approach to getting their jobs done. Even when the users are consulted in depth, the results can be too intricate to use effectively. The work-arounds and paper-based solutions live on. Sic transit gloria mundi.

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