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Business Technology: Ask The Right Question

Earlier this year, I was engaged in a lively discussion with some marketing executives from the software industry over what they felt was the major issue of the day: In the realm of enterprise applications, do businesses want to buy best-of-breed or suites? The folks who advocated the suite approach touted compatibility, ease of use, simplicity, one throat to choke, and minimal application-integration efforts. The other side emphasized superior performance, greater match to the specific business need, less shelfware, more freedom, and predictable application-integration efforts. After a while, though, I started to wonder if the discussion/debate was moving toward a more-sophisticated but nevertheless slightly parallel version of the old Miller Lite TV ads where one group screamed, "Less filling!" while the other shouted back, "Tastes great!" Each had a point, but were they addressing the real issue--that is to say, is the major issue of the day the choice between suites and best-of-breed, or is it this: What do both camps do when customers wish a plague upon both their houses?

“It is said that adversity introduces us to ourselves.
This is true of a nation as well.
... And we have seen our national character in eloquent acts of sacrifice. Inside the World Trade Center, one man who could have saved himself stayed until the end at the side of his quadriplegic friend. A beloved priest died giving the last rites to a firefighter. Two office workers, finding a disabled stranger, carried her down 68 floors to safety. ...
In every generation, the world has produced enemies of human freedom. They have attacked America, because we are freedom’s home and defender. And the commitment of our fathers is now the calling of our time.”

—President George W. Bush, Sept. 14, 2001
Another way of looking at it involves my favorite focus-group story. Ten years ago, a company senses that there's a demand for a video magazine that covers the computer industry, featuring news about new products, interviews with the CEOs of top IT vendors, and related stories. So the company runs several focus groups to ask people questions like should it be 30 minutes or 60, should it be Beta or VHS, should it have commercials, should it have product shoot-outs, and on and on. After several sessions, the would-be developers can't really draw a bead on what potential audiences might want. So they ask an objective colleague to attend the next focus group with them to see if she can see something they're missing. She agrees. About midway through that next focus group, as the same questions are rolled out and the same generally noncommittal answers come back, the objective colleague walks into the room where the discussion's being held, begs pardon for the interruption, and asks, "How many of you would watch this program?" Not a single hand goes up. Stunned, the would-be developers ask, "Why didn't you tell us that?" The attendees' answer: "You didn't ask."

So what is it that today's business-technology managers really want from enterprise software vendors? This isn't to say that the suite-vs.-BOB debate is irrelevant, but is it the right question? The most important question? Battered by the economic slump, stung by fingerpointing over earlier big-software projects that didn't deliver as planned, and under far greater levels of scrutiny from their CEOs and CFOs about justification for major purchases, many CIOs and other business-technology leaders are probably asking themselves a new set of questions: Do I need to buy a lot of new stuff, or do I just need to apply the stuff I already have more effectively? Is EAI the answer? Do I need to buy or own everything, or is there a simpler, less-expensive way for this company to get the tools it needs in a shorter amount of time? The ideas behind what could be gained from CRM, business-intelligence, and other enterprise apps aren't wrong, these customers are saying, but what's the best approach for me to take to get to those ideas? Is it what it's been over the past few years--a multimillion-dollar project that takes 12 months with massive expenses for installation, training, integration, customization, and support, or are some vendors offering innovative approaches that can help me leverage more effectively much of what I already have? Or, do I have to boil the ocean every time I want to introduce a new enterprise application into the company?

There is, I think, an analogy for what's going on in the enterprise-app space to be found at the far end of the IT spectrum: the PC market. For years, people have been saying the PC is a commodity; more recently, some have begun to whisper and then chant that the PC is dead. It's interesting that in such a climate, IBM just introduced a new line of PCs that's intensely un-commodity in design, performance, capability, and utility; in essence, IBM stopped listening to conventional wisdom. And it figured out which question is the right one.

Bob Evans

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