Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Your Company's App

Tim Bray just posted a blog about how Enterprise IT is doing it wrong.  I can't really argue with that. He goes on to explain that Enterprise IT needs to learn from those companies building Web 2.0, because they deliver more functionality in less time and for a whole lot less money. This is where his argument breaks down. The problem is the type of Enterprise Systems he's talking about aren't Twitter, they're your company's app.

I work at a pretty big, stodgy, conservative company. I'm pretty sure, as far as things like ERP and PLM are concerned, my employer is exactly the type of company Tim is talking about, and like I said - he's probably right about the problem. But based on my own experiences and observations at my one lonely company, I think he's wrong in his suggestions. Comparing ERP and Facebook is like comparing apples and Apple Jacks.

The reason I think this is that in terms of deploying Enterprise 2.0 applications I think my employer has done fairly well. We have...

...and probably more stuff that I'm not aware of yet. Some of the above were bought, some were built, some were cobbled together with stuff from a variety of sources. I think most of them were built and deployed, at least initially, for costs about as competitive as possible with Web 2.0 startups and in reasonable timeframes. Of course, this means intranet scale at a Fortune 100 company (or in some cases a subset of it), not successful internet scale.

The problems the above face is much like the problem your typical startup faces: attracting users, keeping investors (sponsors) happy, dealing with the occasional onslaught of visitors after some publicity. But these problems are very different from the problems a traditional Enterprise Application faces. There is SOX compliance. There are no entrenched stakeholders. There are no legacy systems, or if there are they aren't that important. If only 10% of the potential user community actually uses the application, it's a glowing success. Negligible adoption can be accepted for extended periods while the culture adjusts, because the carrying cost of such applications is low.

But enterprise systems needs to deal with SOX. They have more entrenched stakeholders than you can count. These days there's always at least one legacy system, and often several due to disparate business units and acquisitions. If these systems fail, business stops, people don't get paid, or the financials are wrong. If only 90% of your buyers use your ERP systems to process purchase orders, it's an abject failure and possibly endangering the company.

A year or two ago someone "discovered" that a very common, important record in one of our internal systems had 44 (or something like that) required fields, and decided that this was ridiculous. A team was formed to streamline the processes associated with this record by reducing the number of fields. A detailed process audit was conducted. It turned out that every single one of them played a critical role in a downstream process. All the fields remained, and some old timers smiled knowingly.

As many humorless commenters pointed out on Eric Burke's blog, your company's app is your company's app for a reason, and often it's a good reason. These applications aren't complicated because of the technology. Internet applications are complex due to extrinsic forces - the sheer number of users and quantity of data that can deluge the application at any given moment. Enterprise systems tend to be the opposite. Their complexity is intrinsic due to the complexity of the diverse processes the support. The technology complexity (most of which is accidental) is secondary. Tim's suggestions provide a means of addressing technological complexity, and of building green field non-business critical applications in the face of uncertain requirements. They don't provide a means for dealing with critical systems laden with stakeholders, politics, and legacy.

I think the solution, or at least part of the solution, to the problem with enterprise systems lies in removing much of the functionality from them. There are things that must be right all of them time, but most of business (and engineering, etc) exists on a much fuzzier plane. The problem comes from coupling the precise (e.g. general ledger) with the imprecise (e.g. CM on an early stage design), and thus subjecting the imprecise to overly burdensome controls and restrictions. Only after this separation has been carefully implemented can functionality evolve in an agile fashion.

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7 comments:

Anonymous said...

A good response to Tim's article, I can relate to all that!

I wonder if everything going to meet on the middle on this, or will there be wildly divergent paths chosen, depending on country/industry/whatever?

Martin Probst said...

I once listened to a talk by Hasso Plattner (of SAP) who claimed that his biggest successes where when he/they managed to simplify the business requirements and thus the software. He said complexity in enterprise apps comes from bloated business processes, not from technical problems.

Alas, I think the truth is somewhere in the middle. If you look at how enterprise apps are built in many cases, then the business complexity is made even worse by ridiculous technical complexity.

So the way to fix it is getting competent business and IT people who have an urge to kill the complexity, even if it reduces their perceived importance/ego.

jeffwilfong said...

The distinction between critical (ie legal, stakeholder, policy) is very helpful in demarcating Web 2.0 from Enterprise 2.0. Thank you!

Uday said...

Facebook IT itself uses Oracle!!!

You can find the job descriptions under IT here-
http://www.facebook.com/careers/

e-Definers Technology - Web Design Company said...
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John said...
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posicionamiento paginas web said...

It can't have effect in fact, that is exactly what I suppose.