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Tony Byrne
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6 Enduring Truths About Selecting Enterprise Software

Pay attention to these truths and warnings about the tricky business of buying business software.

Editor's note: This is the first of two parts. Read part 2: Six More Enduring Truths About Selecting Enterprise Software

In the 12 years that Real Story Group has been advising enterprise technology selection teams, I've seen customers evolve their approaches to acquiring new software -- mostly for the better.

Real Story Group

In general, customers today have become more savvy, as well as more open to experimentation. Greater attention to enterprise architecture (EA) and user experience (UX) tradeoffs in the buying process has also led to better decision-making.

Nevertheless, many perennial truths about software selection endure. At a time when digital capabilities have become an important competitive differentiator, enterprises seeking to up their digital game need to pay close attention to finding the right fit when investigating new software.

Here are six (sometimes inconvenient) truths that can make you a smarter buyer. At the end of each one, I suggest a short lesson for your team to take away.

1. Software marketplaces are as opaque as ever
Technology buyers have become more sophisticated and have better access to peer networks and advice than ever before. But in fast-changing marketplaces, enterprise buyers still report a lack of transparent, unbiased information about specific technologies and vendors -- as well as insufficient depth. Want to read cursory reviews or simplistic quadrants featuring the largest vendors? Sure, they're available. But what about deeper architectural critiques and contextual evaluations? Not as common.

The rise of cloud-based solutions has to some extent turned opacity into a feature, not a bug. As a buyer, you may not even want to know how a cloud-based service works, just that it addresses an immediate need. For one-dimensional applications, this makes sense: Why waste time investigating closely? For more enterprise-critical applications, you'll want to do the same diligence as you would with on-premises products. Remember, in the cloud, you are still selecting software; you're just not managing it.

[What can agencies learn from IT investments that fail? Read: Lessons For Recovering When Your IT Project Crashes.]

Vendors, too, regularly push boundaries and market themselves to broader use-cases than their technology can handle. You can't blame them. But by the same token, this means that you have more choices than ever, and for important projects, you don't want to rush your decision-making or pursue vendor-of-the-month hype. Having a vendor map or two doesn't hurt.

Lesson: Reach out to trusted advisers to help you navigate.

2. Significant regional and national differences endure
As software marketplaces mature, you begin to see common global trends and products that span geographic boundaries. Some processes are universal; an invoice is still in invoice in Argentina as well as Australia.

Yet, we find that regional differences still matter. Countries like Germany and Japan are resolute in their support for local technology vendors. In Japan, user interfaces often need to feature horizontal scrolling over vertical scrolling -- not an easy change to make if a platform wasn't built that way. Moreover, even mega-vendors like Oracle will distribute resources quite differently in different countries.

Meanwhile, elevated concerns about data location and privacy in the wake of the NSA revelations have only heightened the appeal of local providers.

Lesson: Look beyond brand names and remain open to local suppliers in your market.

3. Interdisciplinary selection teams work best
For important technology decisions, stakeholders can span across HR, legal, marketing and sales, finance, and more. So you want to involve relevant groups in the process. Sometimes business teams hand over responsibility for software selection to IT groups on the grounds that business leaders do not have sufficient time nor expertise. This is a mistake: The wrong tool will eat up much more time and money than a committed presence in the selection process.

And, of course, IT should never, ever pick business technology on their own.

Conversely, we sometimes witness selection teams trying to work around their internal IT resources because they don't like the direction IT is heading, or they simply don't get along. This is almost always a mistake. Even with SaaS products, you will need IT's help for things like data integration.

Lesson: Build a broad selection team that can account for diverse enterprise interests and validate the results with peers.

4. Usability is relative
Everybody wants tools to be "easy to use," but few people can describe what that really means. Beyond basic human factors -- like reducing clicks and pop-up windows, or avoiding horizontal scrolling (except maybe in Japan!) -- you can't make a lot of blanket usability judgments.

The rise of UX and user-centered design principles can help here. UX guru Steve Krug offers a pithy definition of usability: fitness to purpose. Usability therefore becomes dependent on the tasks and personalities involved. What seems too complex to one person can prove richly functional to someone else whose tasks are more complicated.

Although nearly everyone looks to Google as the paragon of simplicity, enterprise software vendors in some segments have headed in the opposite direction, amping up power-user interfaces. This stems from the fact that enterprise technology selection teams are dominated by savvy, feature-driven specialists rather than workaday end-users or real customers.

Lesson: Task analysis is your friend -- you'll need to dig to find out what "easy" and "simple" mean to your customers and colleagues.


5. Technology "suites" are mostly mythical
Software vendors love "suites." Suites mean more revenue, more ownership of the customer, and usually more lock-in. Customers often like at least the idea of suites, hoping they will fulfill our eternal dream of all-in-one products that don't require reams of money.

The problem here is that vendors typically assemble suites via acquisitions designed to impress financial and industry analysts, with technical compatibility an afterthought. That means that the hard work of truly stitching that putative suite together falls to you. Oracle, Salesforce, and Adobe are my particular bêtes noires today, but you've also seen it with IBM, EMC, and the like.

Lesson: Avoid putting all your eggs in one vendor basket, and even if you do, still plan for integration work.

6. Vendor roadmaps are mostly aspirational
At some level, the best technology vendors are dreamers, but many unexpected things happen on the journey of making dreams a reality. Vendor product managers are often inspiring evangelists with impressive PowerPoint decks, but they frequently write functional checks their developers can't cash.

We came up with the nickname of "the roadmap company" for a vendor we evaluated that had a history of consistently overpromising via beautiful diagrams. (Oh, alright, I'll tell you which one: It was OpenText, but even staid Microsoft has fallen victim to this, especially around Office 365.) Incidentally, open-source projects can create mythical roadmaps as well, though they cannot so readily hide when new versions get delayed or redirected.

Lesson: Don't predicate any business plans on functionality that does not yet exist.

What do you think?
You may sense a bit of cynicism in this list, but hopefully some passion, too. As an integrator myself in the 1990s, I got so frustrated witnessing poor technology choices in the enterprise that I decided to shift careers to see if I could do something about it.

Enterprise technology users deserve the right software fit. The right technology and vendor aren't sufficient alone for business success, but they're usually a necessary pre-condition.

But what about you, the enterprise customer.? What lessons have you learned? Chime in using the comments, below.

InformationWeek 500 companies take a practical view of even trendy tech such as cloud, big data analytics, and mobile. Read all about what they're doing in our big new special issue. Also in the InformationWeek 500 issue: A ranking of our top 250 winners; profiles of the top five companies; and 20 great ideas that you can steal. (Free registration required.)

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