*other soon-to-be redundant enterprise systems are available

The paradigm that when it comes to enterprise software, “big is best” has long been known to be false by anyone who must implement or use huge, integrated ERP and other end to end B2B systems. These multi-million dollars, years-long software projects were predicated on huge benefits in terms of cost, efficiency and management info, over what came before. You may well ask, ‘what did come before, did enterprise software exist before Big Tech’? And the answer is, of course, yes – lots of it. In many corporations that meant a vast spider web city of clunky, end of life databases and workflow systems, custom apps and manual solutions that only integrated (some of the time) with huge effort and cost. 

SAP softwareBut that was the past – across the worlds tech hubs, smart, innovative teams who grew up with Instagram, Google apps and Amazon are building solutions that solve today’s specific business problems with apps that they would be happy to use. Think Workday, Hubspot or Slack. Open, cloud-based, point solutions realise a new type of integrated enterprise architecture where best-in-class applications are available at low-cost with rapid implementation and share data freely. Where Big Tech used to dismiss ‘point solutions’ they now have to defend the question – ‘why should I spend 18 months implementing a new ERP when I can solve my top 5 business pains in 3 months for 20% of the cost?’. Many corporations are realizing that Big Tech has failed to deliver on its promise of the all-doing, all-seeing system and are now taking cloud-based apps seriously. 

Many corporations are realizing that Big Tech has failed to deliver on its promise of the all-doing, all-seeing system and are now taking cloud-based apps seriously. Click To Tweet

An alternative to Big Tech?

Timing for a new approach is great. CIOs and their teams across most industries are seriously looking at the long term strategy for application architecture as a key element of major digitization programs (read Dr Claire Trevien’s great blog here). One reason why many of these programs have struggled to deliver real performance improvement is that the paradigm of Big Tech has not been challenged significantly, let alone broken. 

There is a virtuous circle at work here – the technologies that made the current revolution in application development also make realising a new type of enterprise architecture possible. Seemingly inexhaustible, highly secure cloud-based capacity has been proven a reality by players like AWS, Google and Microsoft, so hosting in-house is no longer even contemplated. Web-based technologies have driven de-facto standards for application architecture which means that technical integration should be a given. Most cloud apps developed in the last 5 years have a native ability to talk to each other. 

Another failed promise of Big Tech is powerful, insightful management information which supports agile, precise decision making in corporations. As a response, Business Intelligence (BI) software has ballooned in the last 5 years with many enterprises developing the capability to implement and optimise powerful (again, cloud-based) tools that can suck huge volumes of data from many disparate apps and present custom, detailed management information.

Software that supports business needs

Enterprises have the choice of agile, innovative cloud-based applications to solve their specific business problems. They can be quite readily integrated with each other and existing BI layers. So, why and how would they go about doing that?

Many of these apps are highly focused on business problems that founders often have experience of in the real world (e.g. contract management, program management, CRM). That singular approach to a problem usually results in a best-in-class solution with innovative features and a very intuitive user experience (if not, the vendor will burn out quite quickly). Because they address the specific needs of common business problems, these apps often support a business process that users need, rather than the one that is enforced by Big Tech. Because they use really up-to-date coding techniques they are often much more configurable too – for example – enabling user-defined, project-specific workflows – still a dream for Big Tech. Because they are very focused, it is also possible to implement these apps fast (weeks instead of months/years). All of this means that the vastly expensive customisation of Big Tech enterprise systems can be consigned to the past.

Adopting an agile mindset

Start-ups do software development fast – they turn around features and improvements into product in cycles of a few weeks (terminology around this approach – e.g. the ‘Agile Sprint’ has even entered corporate-speak). This means that product teams take feedback from users and deliver it in the application on a sometimes monthly basis. This builds both loyalty and buy-in from users, drives performance and offers a real opportunity to influence functionality and steer the application to meet enterprise requirements. Compare this to Big Tech who will often do a very expensive and painfully long upgrade. For many enterprises, it feels like the upgrade cycle never ends – a little like this.

Adopting a new approach using agile, great value apps is not going to happen immediately and it certainly demands some new thinking and capabilities from enterprise. System architects will be in even greater demand and integration skills will be critical. System Integrators (SI) have an opportunity though, to get off their dependency on Big Tech projects and start creatively architecting real solutions again from best-in-class integrated cloud apps. CIOs will look to the SIs who can deliver solutions that really move the needle. 

agile softwareWe all have to start somewhere. One way is to look for the business problems that despite Big Tech’s promises, are still very much present. Talk to functional teams and discover which Big Tech users are still working with spreadsheets, PDFs and email for critical business processes. How are these secure, auditable, efficient and how do you get management information from data that is never exposed? And how did we not notice before? Maybe because after complex manual business processes are complete, Big Tech software is updated with only the results. All the data from that process is lost to the enterprise along with all the learning, audit trail and management info.

There are some risks to consider – security must be paramount in architectural design, but these applications typically follow strong cybersecurity standards and its unlikely will pose significant new threats compared to existing operations. Also, enterprises have recently realised that ensuring integrity of systems is essential in the current threat environment and are fast acquiring those capabilities. 

Corporations also need to ensure that applications are fully supported, and this inevitably means that internal resources will need to be focused on this. How does this compare to the current massive support effort and bills from Big Tech? After a transition to a more independent, custom architecture, it’s likely that support costs will be lower. 

If the state of Big Tech proves one thing, it’s that you can’t be good at everything. Click To Tweet

Lured by the promise of huge revenues and stock values, many start-ups are starting to look like, and behave like Big Tech as they grow not only their user base but their functional footprint. If the state of Big Tech proves one thing, it’s that you can’t be good at everything. In B2B there are already examples of this including Salesforce and Coupa. Enterprises need to be aware of swapping the devil they know for the devil they don’t. A more diverse and creative approach to architecting solutions will help keep these players in check.

devil you knowThere is a great opportunity for enterprises to develop a more responsive, high-performance architecture of integrated, best-in-class cloud applications (think Hubspot v Oracle CRM; Workday v SAP). We can leave behind the dominance and disappointments of Big Tech and deliver the real promise of digitisation – a new way of working that drives real results and makes work more fun! This will likely be a slow transition, but it will enable corporations to rethink the possibilities provided by innovative cloud-based apps and not be constrained by Big Tech. 

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