Software Decisions: The Chicken and Egg Problem

Businesses are often faced with the purchase or development of major software systems. We often refer to major business systems as “enterprise software” or “workflow” or “process automation.” There are many varieties of these big systems, but what they all have in common is that they represent unique challenges, especially to businesses which don’t have their own software project teams (which most don’t). We distinguish enterprise software from commonplace business applications, such as web browsers, email, and office suites – as well as from specialty applications such as CAD/CAM, video, animation, and so on. Both the commonplace and specialty applications are generally personal productivity tools or high-powered workstation products.

In contrast, enterprise software interconnects individuals and systems and orchestrates their activities. Unlike conventional applications, individual users may have completely different experiences when they interact with enterprise software, as the tools, information, and capabilities they work with will be tailored to their roles and positions in the larger process. However, generally the user interfaces, though varied, run on conventional personal computers (not high-powered workstations), sometimes in web browsers. What makes enterprise software a challenge is not (necessarily) its vast number of features, huge processing power, or complex algorithms.  Rather, it is challenging because of its highly interconnected nature tied to large-scale operations and major processes, and also because it is deployed in a unique business environment and must interact and integrate with pre-existing systems and databases. Therefore, it almost always requires a custom perspective, and can be very difficult for organizations to plan without expert guidance.

There is a gap in expertise that often happens when organizations plan large-scale software. (Large-scale is relative to the size of the organization, and even small companies can face these challenges, especially if they gain competitive edge through unique processes.) If the organization lacks internal resources to develop the system, it will first identify software vendors or consulting companies, and then will hire them, purchase systems, or both. In some cases the organization will hire new employees or contract workers to staff the project. These are all big decisions, with a lot at stake and high expectations for positive results and return-on-investment. However, the organization may not have adequate internal expertise to perform the due diligence necessary to make the best choices.

This is a chicken-and-egg problem, because the real expertise only arrives once the big financial commitment is made, which is too late to help the business when making the commitment — and too late to ensure wise use of its internal resources in the planning stages. Often high level managers put in large amounts of time and effort in the preliminary system planning. Much of this effort may be wasted or only marginally effective – and worse, can result in very poor technology selection, and ultimately a failed system, or else one that is overpriced and underperforms.

The traditional RFP (Request for Proposal) illustrates the problem. RFPs are often used to solicit proposals for big, custom jobs. Yet they are often of very poor quality, and may omit critical pieces. This is a recipe for a disgruntled client and a disgruntled consultant. Organizations may have technical people (such as the IT staff), but often these are not the individuals putting together the RFPs. Instead, the department managers write them.

There is a technology professional we refer to as the Tech Advisor or Tech Advocate, who offers a genuine alternative, and can fill the gap. Tech advisors do not generally come in as total solutions providers – not because they are lacking in qualifications, but because they choose to do advisory work as their service. What’s more, they can and will come in for a short engagement, before major planning is done and the big decisions are made. Since they typically only represent a small commitment of the organization’s time, money, resources, they can usually be hired without the extensive screening required of the ultimate solutions providers, who represent big budget items.

Tech advisors can assist with early project planning and technology selection, and make them both more efficient and effective. In fact the time and energy high level managers can save because they have the expert support will often more than pay the total cost of bringing an advisor on board in the early stages. Moreover, the tech advisor’s role will ensure that the results of that planning are truly useful for the incoming solutions provider, and that the solution laid out in the plans will be an optimal fit for the organization’s needs, goals and priorities.

A tech advisor is more than just a software expert. The profile includes a number of other characteristics, such as communications skills, project management experience, leadership abilities, enjoyment in working with a range of people, creativity, and a history of solving problems and thereby enabling companies to get out of precarious situations and move forward. Tech advisors generally have at least twenty years of experience in software, with diverse backgrounds spanning a variety of industries. They may work in teams, in order to cover a broader range of technologies.

Copyright © 2012 Patrick D. Russell

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