The business of IT has changed radically in the last few years. Take Walmart for example. In the 80s Walmart laid the foundations for its future growth by fielding a supply chain data warehouse. The insight the data warehouse fueled their amazing growth to become the largest retailer in the world. However, our focus has moved on from developing applications. More recently Walmart fielded the Telxon, a barcode scanner with a wireless link to the corporate back-end. This device is the front end of a distributed solution which has let Walmart devolve buying decisions to the team walking the shop floor.
For a long time IT departments have defined themselves by their ability to deliver major applications into the enterprise. CRM, MRP, even ERP; all the three letter acronyms. For a long time this has been the right thing to do. Walmart’s data warehouse, to return to our example, was a large application which was a significant driver in the company’s outlier performance for the next couple of decades.
The world has changed a lot since that data warehouse went operational. First the market for enterprise applications grew into the mature market we see today. If you have a well defined problem—an unsupported business activity—then a range of vendors will line up to provide you with off-the-shelf solutions. Next we saw a range of non-technology options emerge, from business process outsourcing (BPO) and leveraging partnerships, through to emerging software-as-a-service (SaaS) solutions.
What used to be a big problem—fielding a large bespoke (or even off-the-shelf) application—has become a (relatively) small one. Take CRM (customer relationship management) as one example. What was a multi-year project requiring an investment of tens of millions of dollars to deploy a best-of-breed on-premises solution, has become a few million dollar and a matter of months to field SaaS solution. And the SaaS solutions seem to be pulling ahead in the feature-function war; Salesforce.com (one of the early SaaS CRM solutions) is now seen as the market leader (check with your favorite analyst).
Nor has business been standing still while technology has been marching forward. The productivity improvements provided by the last generation of enterprise applications have created the time and space for business stakeholders to solve more difficult problems. That supply chain solution Walmart deployed that was the first of many, automating most (if not all) of the mundane tasks across the supply chain. Business process methodologies such as LEAN (derived from the Toyota Production System) and Six Sigma (from GE) then rolled through the business, ripping all the fat from our supply chains as they went past. The latest focus has been category management: managing groups of product as separate businesses and, in many chases, handing responsibility for managing the category back to the supplier.
Which brings us back to the Telxon. If we’ve all been on the same journey—fielding a complete set of applications, optimizing our business processes, and deploying the latest, best practice, management techniques—then how do we differentiate? Walmart realized that, all things being equal, it was their ability to respond to supply chain exceptions that would provide them with an edge. As a retailer, this means responding to stock-outs on the shop floor. The only way to do this in a timely manner is to empower the people walking the floor to make a procurement decision when they see fit. Walmart’s solution was the Telxon.
The Telxon is an interesting device as it reveals an astonishing amounts of information: the quantity that should be on the shelf, the availability from the nearest warehouse, the retail price, and even the markup. It also empowers the employee to place an order for anything from a pallet to a truck-load.
As one journalist found:
We received an inspirational talk on this subject, from an employee who reacted after the store test-marketed tents that could protect cars for people who didn’t have enough garage space. They sold out quickly, and several customers came in asking for more. Clearly this was a singular, exceptional case of word-of-mouth, so he ordered literally a truckload of tent-garages, “Which I shouldn’t have done really without asking someone,” he said with a shrug, “because I hadn’t been working at the store for long.” But the item was a huge success. His VPI was the biggest in store history—and that kind of thing doesn’t go unnoticed in Arkansas.
Clearly the IT world has moved on since that first data warehouse went live in Arkansas. Enterprise applications have been transformed from generators of competitive advantage into efficient sources of commodity functionality. Technology’s ability to create value should be focused on how we effectively support knowledge workers and the differentiation they create. These solutions only have a passing resemblance to the application monoliths of the past. They’re distributed, rather than centralized, pulling information from a range of sources, including partner and public sources. They’re increasingly real time, in the Twitter sense of the term, pulling current transactional data in as needed rather than working from historical data and relying on overnight ETLs. They’re heterogeneous, integrating a range of technologies as well as changes in business processes and employee workplace agreements, all brought together for delivery of the final solution. And, most importantly, they’re not standalone n-tier applications like we built in the past.
But while the IT world has moved on, it seems that many of our IT departments haven’t. Our heritage as application factories has us focused on managing applications, rather than technology, actively preventing us from creating this new generation of solutions. This behavior is ingrained in our organizations, with a large number of architects through project managers to senior management measuring their worth by the size of the project (in terms of CAPEX and OPEX required, or head count) that they are involved in, with the counter productive behavior that this creates.
In a world where solutions are shrinking and becoming more heterogeneous (even to the extent of becoming increasingly cross discipline) our inability to change ourselves is the biggest thing holding us back