by Philippe Beaurain, IFS North America

Don’t Modify Your Enterprise Application

Nov 06, 20066 mins
IT Leadership

Unless you like to spend a lot of money and effort to permanently fix temporary problems.

Remember the first time you picked up a cup of coffee and took a sip? It was probably unlike anything you ever tasted before. If you were committed to choking down the whole cup (perhaps to stay awake for a late-night study session) the first thing you probably did was dump a large amount of sugar or cream into that coffee to make it more palatable. Over time, as you became more accustomed to the taste of coffee, you no longer needed cream and sugar. This not only reduced the number of calories in that jolt of caffeine, but allowed you to appreciate the flavor of the beans, the quality of the roast and the subtle aroma.

That first cup of coffee can teach us a valuable lesson when it comes to managing the implementation of an enterprise application.

At first glance, a new enterprise application will seem strange to end-users within your company, and those end users will likely come to you with a laundry list of modifications, often designed to make the application more similar to what they have seen and experienced before. However, while the cream and sugar used to doctor up that first cup of coffee were almost free, modifying enterprise applications can add millions of dollars to the total cost of ownership (TCO) of that application.

Modifications increase TCO in three ways:

  • Modifications increase the cost of implementation as custom programming becomes necessary to meet the specific demands.
  • Modifications increase the cost of service because a software company’s personnel must get up to speed on and support the idiosyncrasies of the modification as well as the standard software.
  • Modifications increase the cost of upgrades, as the modification must in most cases be uplifted each time a new version of the software is implemented. So across the lifecycle of an enterprise software package, modifications increase TCO.

While they can cost millions, many modifications are like the cream and sugar in that after a while they become unnecessary as users become more familiar with the application. We all know there is no caffeine in cream or sugar – and similarly the modifications made to enterprise applications generally do not improve the ability of the software to meet real business needs!

Increased Cost, No Gain

If your company decides to implement an enterprise application, it is to achieve specific, rational goals. You may need to better coordinate projects and processes across departments, or streamline financial reporting and analysis. Or perhaps you want to allow closer collaboration with customers and suppliers, or to enable efficiencies that make your company more competitive. You choose the application and vendor that you feel will do the best job helping you reach your business goals.

In some cases, a company may choose an enterprise application that requires extensive modification in order to meet their basic needs. This usually means that the wrong vendor or application was selected. As competitive pressures intensify in this age of globalization, specific vertical industries and business models require more specific functionality. Rather than modify the wrong application, it likely makes more sense to choose the right application—one that is based on best practices proven to improve the efficiency of a business like your own.

Hands-On Versus Bird’s Eye

But even when customers choose an application for sound business reasons, senior management often gives end users of the application, sometimes unconsciously, the opportunity to suggest modifications, and these modifications might lead them astray of their original objectives.

Hands-on users of an enterprise application typically have knowledge or understanding only of their own role in the organization rather than a broad understanding of the business as a whole. They may not be privy to the business reasoning for changing the tools they work with every day. Many software modifications that employees insist are necessary for them to continue their current level of productivity are designed to preserve the status quo and would do little to help the company reach its high-level goals. Individual employees’ optimization of their own work might represent a sub-optimization at the company level!

At my company, in situations where our customers give us long lists of “must-have” modifications, we have found that if we can convince them to run the software as-is for 90 days, the modifications drop off the list one-by-one. This is because employees’ paradigms shift from the old to the new system. They find that the new software system can in fact do what the old one could do—and more. The new software environment is no longer a threat and becomes a familiar, normal part of life—like that morning cup of coffee.

Senior managers are always involved in the selection of an enterprise application—but this dynamic is one reason that they really need to stay involved in the implementation. Their bird’s-eye view of the company’s operations gives them the perspective necessary to determine the true needs of the business.

Mods to Watch Out For

Each implementation of an enterprise application and each business situation brings with it unique challenges, but here is a short list of spurious modifications to watch out for.

  • Duplicating the Legacy System. “In the old system …” are four words to watch out for when employees request modifications. It is only natural that users of a system become attached to that system, and would request modifications to make a new software package look and feel like the old one.
  • Data Entry Aids. This is a “convenience modification” that formats or manipulates data as it is entered in the system so users can truncate information, leave out special characters or in other ways shave time off of data entry.
  • The “Do My Job” Button. Another “convenience mod” involves stringing various elements of functionality together. Creation of an “add parts” button, an “add purchase orders” or an “add customers” button are examples. But after using a new enterprise software package for a period of time, these expensive “Wizards” quickly become obsolete as employees master their new environment.

Philippe Beaurain is vice president of services with IFS North America. IFS develops and supplies component-based business applications for medium and large enterprises and organizations in manufacturing, supply chain management, customer relationship management, service provision, financials, product development, maintenance and human resource administration.