Applications let us differentiate, not!

Being involved in enterprise IT, we tend to think that the applications we build, install and maintain will provide a competitive advantage to the companies we work for.

Take Walmart, for example. During the early 80s, Walmart invested heavily in creating a data warehouse to help it analyze its end-to-end supply chain. The data was used to statically optimize Walmart’s supply chain, creating the most efficient, lowest cost supply chain in the world at the time. Half the savings were passed on to Walmart’s customers, half whet directly to the bottom line, and the rest is history. The IT asset, the data warehouse, enabled Walmart to differentiate, while the investment and time required to develop the data warehouse created a barrier to competition. Unfortunately this approach doesn’t work anymore.

Fast forward to the recent past. The market for enterprise applications has grown tremendously since Walmart first brought that data warehouse online. Today, applications providing solutions to most business problems are available from a range of vendors, and at a fraction of the cost required for the first bespoke solutions that blazed the enterprise application trail. Walmart even replaced that original bespoke supply chain data warehouse, which had become something of an expensive albatross, with an off-the-rack solution. How is it possible for enterprise applications to provide a competitive advantage if we’re all buying from the same vendors?

One argument is that differentiation rests in how we use enterprise applications, rather than in the applications themselves. Think of the manufacturing industries (to use a popular analogy at the moment). If two companies have access to identical factories, then they can still make different, and differentiated, products. Now think of enterprise applications as business process factories. Instead of turning out products, we use these factories to turn out business processes. These digital process factories are very flexible. Even if we all start with the same basic functionality, if I’m smarter at configuring the factory, then I’ll get ahead over time and create a competitive advantage.

This analogy is so general that it’s hard to disagree with. Yes, enterprise applications are (mostly) commodities so any differentiation they might provide now rests in how you use them. However, this is not a simple question of configuration and customization. The problem is a bit more nuanced than that.

Many companies make the mistake that customizing (code changes etc) their unique business processes into an application will provide them with a competitive advantage. Unfortunately the economics of the enterprise software market mean that they are more likely to have created an albatross for their enterprise, than provided a competitive advantage.

Applications are typically parameterized bespoke solutions. (Many of the early enterprise applications were bespoke COBOL solutions where some of the static information—from company name through shop floor configuration—has been pushed into databases as configuration parameters. ) The more configuration parameters provided by the vendor, the more you can bend the application to a shape that suits you.

Each of these configuration parameters requires and investment of time and effort to develop and maintain. They complicate the solution, pushing up its maintenance cost. This leads vendors to try and minimize the number of configuration points they provide to a set of points that will meet most, but not all customers’ needs. In practical terms, it is not possible to configure an application to let you differentiate in a meaningful way. The configuration space is simply too small.

Some companies resort to customizing the application—changing its code—to get their “IP” in. While this might give you a solution reflecting how your business runs today, every customization takes you further from a packaged solution (low cost, easy to maintain, relatively straight forward to upgrade …) and closer to a bespoke solution (high cost, expensive to maintain, difficult or impossible to upgrade). I’ve worked with a number of companies where an application is so heavily customized that it is impossible to deploy vendor patches and/or upgrades. The application that was supposed to help them differentiate had become an expensive burden.

Any advantage to be wrung from enterprise IT now comes from the gaps between applications, not from the applications themselves. Take supply chain for example. Most large businesses have deployed planning and supply chain management solutions, and have been on either the LEAN or Six Sigma journey. Configuring your planning solution slightly differently to your competitors is not going to provide much of an edge, as we’re all using the same algorithms, data models and planning drivers to operate our planning process.

Most of the potential for differentiation now lies with the messier parts of the process, such as exception management (the people who deal with stock-outs and lost or delayed shipments). If I can bring together a work environment that makes my exception managers more productive than yours—responding more rapidly and accurately to exceptions—then I’ve created a competitive advantage as my supply chain is now more agile than yours. If I can capture what it is that my exception managers do, their non-linear and creative problem solving process, automate it, and use this to create time and space for my exception managers to continuously improve how supply chain disruptions are handled, then I’ve created a sustainable competitive advantage. (This is why Enterprise 2.0 is so exciting, since a lot of this IP in this space is tacit information or collaboration.)

Simply configuring an application with today’s best practice—how your company currently does stuff—doesn’t cut it. You need to understand the synergies between your business and the technologies available, and find ways to exploit these synergies. The trick is to understand the 5% that really makes your company different, and then reconfiguring both the business and technology to amplify this advantage while commoditizing the other 95%. Rolls-Royce (appears to be) a great example of getting this right. Starting life as an manufacturer of aircraft engines, Rolls Royce has leveraged its deep understanding of how aircraft engines work (from design through operation and maintenance), reifying this knowledge in a business and IT estate that can provide clients with a service to keep their aircraft moving.

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