Time to Tear This Old Software House Down

Michael Vizard

This may not be a practical idea for most companies, but as we continue to look at the increased complexity of enterprise software you have to wonder if the time to start over has finally come.

We all know enterprise software is a mess. Most IT organizations don't have a strategic approach to enterprise software architecture. What they have is a morass of tactical applications that IT organizations are trying to retrofit with middleware in the hopes of fostering business innovation through technology innovation. But nobody is quite sure what data in any application at any given time is the most relevant to any given business process.

Things are not much better in terms of personal productivity software on the desktop either. The average worker today is confronted with a dizzying array of interfaces to Windows and Web applications. Some of these applications reside on local clients and servers, while others are delivered as a service. To make matters even more interesting, most workers are also flipping between multiple messaging systems as they seek to cope with e-mail and instant messaging.

It's a testament to the skills of IT professionals everywhere that any of the software we have in place today works at all. But the really hard question that everybody continues to ignore is whether the cost of making all this work in its current form is more trouble than it's worth. When you add up all the money spent on software licenses and the IT professionals needed to deploy, manage and support all these applications, the numbers become quite staggering.

The real question is: Have we reached a point where we need to start over? For example, enterprise resource planning (ERP) suites have been useful, but at the end of the day most companies use these applications to help automate rudimentary business processes. Where we have seen some significant advances is in the rise of new business process management (BPM) platforms that are not only more customizable it terms of automating a business process, they also provide a whole lot more flexibility. That flexibility provides the business with more agility than what we're seeing from our existing application investments. So it's more than probable that emerging BPM software platforms will be deployed in a way that will obviate a lot of the functions we're currently relying on a cumbersome piece of ERP software to manage.

On the front end, we're also starting to see next-generation collaboration applications from companies such as Cisco and IBM that do a much better job of integrating the diverse range of data sources that we all need to draw on today. The productivity benefits of these new applications go well beyond the simple portals that have been deployed to allow us to share files.

In fact, the future of enterprise software is going to be defined by the interplay between unified communications, collaboration applications and BPM systems.
Our natural inclination is to layer these new software technologies on top of our existing investments. The logic behind that approach is to protect the investments we have already made. On a more emotional level, we're also scared to re-engineer complex systems that for all intents and purposes appear to be working.

But we're drowning in complexity. The vast majority of the money we spend on IT goes toward just keeping the systems up and running. The time has come to fundamentally rethink what we want our software systems to do for us. The good news is that BPM coupled with advances in collaboration software and unified communications is providing an opportunity to step back from the mess we've created to consider more strategic approaches to how we use software. As part of that process, we should evaluate where we spend money today with an eye toward repurposing those dollars on new systems that ultimately will better serve the business. Over a three-year window, the money we save on existing systems would probably pay for investments in new applications that would substantially boost real employee productivity.

It may not be financially practical to do this overnight, but it sure is a nice thought. We need to make a mental break with the past. But before we do that, every journey needs to begin with an idea of where we want to go. Right now, most companies are trying to just cope. So the real question is: Do we have the necessary fortitude and defined business goals needed to tear down all the walls of enterprise software that have been built over the last 40 years, or will we just continue to do the same things over again and hope for the proverbial different result?

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