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12/16/2010
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Practical Analysis: Choosing SaaS Apps Is IT's Work

LOB partners tend to fall in love with an app’s interface and functionality, but they don’t know enough about things like integration and user authentication.

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Art Wittmann As this week's cover story points out, IT pros must now deal with the fact that business-side partners have a variety of new technology choices and avenues. If accounts payable wants a different expense-reporting system, lots of software-as-a-service alternatives are available; same goes for human resources, sales, and most other parts of the organization. For most CIOs and CFOs, this "competition" is a welcome relief. Tactical applications can be taken off IT's to-do list, and overall costs can be lowered--they'll no doubt appear lower at first, at least.

While the budgeting process and even the application selection process may change, one thing that shouldn't change much is IT's role in selecting apps. Whether an application is SaaS-based and will run with little day-to-day maintenance from IT, or it's to be run on your company's internal infrastructure and therefore will be the sole responsibility of IT, it's the job of IT leaders to ensure that every widely used application meets the needs it was envisioned to meet.

The biggest challenge in this regard is ensuring that SaaS apps meet your corporate standards for everything from the stability of the vendor and the security of your data to the quality of the contract--service-level agreement guarantees and penalties provisions. Conversely, it's easy for line-of-business partners to fall in love with an application's functionality and user interface, but they typically won't know enough about other important aspects, like how user authentication will work and whether the necessary hooks are there for data integration with other applications.

This is a lesson a lot of IT teams have already learned the hard way yet many forget today. When you didn't have standards in place for a personal productivity app, for example, users bought some from Lotus, some from Microsoft, and some from companies long since out of business--and the result was a support nightmare. For years, database standards have been tough to enforce, and even operating systems crept into the organization because of specific app and project requirements. We risk repeating that lack of discipline as IT either abdicates the application decision to LOB leaders or comes into the process too late in the game.

Whether 25 years ago or today, the result is the same: Short-term benefits eventually give way to support and integration problems that often far outstrip the savings or end user benefits initially realized. Buyers must look at the whole picture, and end users and business-side partners just don't have that complete view. You do.

Whether IT will play its critical role in selecting SaaS applications depends on its relationship with management and business-side partners. If you've run an insular IT organization, one that avoids talking and working with business-side partners, those partners will be only too happy to throw their chosen SaaS applications over that wall you've built and expect you to run them. Grumble all you want; you've given them no reason to act another way. Similarly, if your corner-office masters are convinced they're better at picking application partners than you are, then yours is an uphill battle. It may take some failures and your wholehearted efforts to make the best of poor choices to develop a better working relationship.

Whatever it takes, IT must take full ownership of SaaS applications. It's not just good for IT; it's good for your company.

Art Wittmann is director of InformationWeek Analytics, a portfolio of decision-support tools and analyst reports. You can write to him at awittmann@techweb.com.

To find out more about Art Wittmann, please visit his page.

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