Living in the Post-Enterprise-Application Age

Michael Vizard

As enterprise software continues to evolve, you can't help but wonder if the way we have traditionally thought about enterprise application software has become obsolete.

For the past 20 years or more, IT organizations and the business executives they serve have been conditioned to think of an enterprise application as being a best-in-class instance of a business process that was carefully developed based on the collective experience of a particular software vendor. Because that vendor typically had thousands of interactions with customers, the assumption was that this best-in-class implementation offered a lot of strategic value.

But somewhere along the way, we lost sight of what really mattered. One of the reasons companies invest in enterprise software is to gain a competitive business advantage. If everybody is investing in software that drives them to implement the same business processes as everybody else, it's tough to gain any kind of competitive edge through differentiation when you're relying on complex sets of inflexible applications.

More recently, we've seen a fundamental shift in the enterprise toward the concept of managing business processes end to end. Companies want to get smarter about how they operate, and in pursuit of that goal, they are finding they need to fundamentally revamp their approach to enterprise software on multiple levels.

The first level is simply investing in more analytics and business intelligence software to discover what they really know about the business. The second is the development of BPM frameworks that are more flexible than existing suites of ERP software, and thirdly, an increased willingness to develop their own custom applications.

This latter development is particularly surprising given how conditioned everyone is about the value of packaged applications. But companies are finding that application development platforms are not only a lot more robust than they use to be, they are also a lot easier to work with. So instead of compromising on business process functionality, more of them are using Microsoft.Net, Java or any one of a dozen other alternatives to sculpt software into exactly the shape they want it to be.

Not only does that mean lower costs in terms of application licenses, it enables them to think of IT as a tool that enables a set of end-to-end business processes that can be changed as quickly as the business changes, thanks to new iterative application-development methodologies.

Obviously, application vendors such as SAP and Oracle have received this message loud and clear given their newfound appreciation of BPM and middleware technologies. But what's even potentially more interesting going forward is the information-centric approach companies such as IBM are now proposing. If business processes by definition need to change rapidly, then the primary task is to acquire the critical information needed to inform the decisions to change those processes as soon as possible. What's needed, IBM argues, is a new approach to how we capture knowledge in the first place, which in turn will not only dictate the course of the business process, but ultimately automate them.

Nobody seems to be able to put their exact finger on how enterprise software will evolve to meet this next set of challenges. But it's pretty clear that customers intuitively know what they want. In fact, the next time somebody says they plan to invest more in business intelligence, what they are really saying is something a whole lot more than just investing in another piece of software. What they are really saying is that they are reinventing how they use enterprise software altogether.

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