Aligning business and IT is no easy task. There is a titanic shift underway as industries drive investment toward providing the best possible customer experience. For incumbents and new businesses alike, differentiation is derived by the coordination of people, processes, and technology. Over the last decade, technology has taken the spotlight with the explosion of applications on the market. An application is software designed for a specific task. The abundance of SaaS solutions creates challenges for organizations as these applications lock data into silos. To be competitive today, modern organizations must collaborate at scale. Modern software solutions provide the opportunity to break down silos, but have limitations that must be managed.
The SaaS revolution has been a mixed blessing. Organizations were able derive value by adopting Customer Relationship Management (CRM), Enterprise Resource Management (ERP), and instant messaging applications. It is understood now that organizational and business structures mirror the data structures of the solutions that are acquired. If your SaaS solutions cannot share data, how good of a job do you think your people will do to fill the gap? How well does sales and marketing talk to operations? Is collaboration facilitated through exchanging spreadsheets?
In technology terms, a platform is a foundation to develop and deploy differentiating business applications. Technology platforms like Amazon Web Services (AWS) or Microsoft Azure provide the building blocks or services for other applications. Operating systems like Android, Windows, and iOS act as computing platforms that connect developers to users through marketplaces (another platform) like app stores. Like all platforms, they enable value to be derived from the object that is built on top of them.
Modern integrated software solutions blur the line between application and platform. The needs of modern business are driving solutions toward centralized platform “like” solutions. Modern software solutions have the impossible challenge of unifying all business needs under one banner (eliminate data/knowledge silos) and simultaneously operate interchangeably between highly differentiated industries and business strategies. For example, take two engineers operating in the same industry, providing the same service, they will likely build two very different spreadsheets to solve the same problem. Now replace the two engineers’ spreadsheets with a generalized software solution that also works for an HVAC service technician and a hair salon.
Goals of modern solutions are to centralize data, coordinate processes, and foster collaboration and innovation within an organization. These principles underlying modern software solutions are ironically captured in a 20-year-old application/platform, Microsoft SharePoint. SharePoint is a highly customizable web-based platform for document management and collaboration. Loved by some, the bane of existence to many others, SharePoint is an excellent representation of the challenges implementing modern solutions. Modern solutions provide out of the box functionality that target universal problems (email, document creation and storage, task lists), and a platform functionality for building custom services to meet the unique need of the organization.
The SaaS boom is a product from the desire to have a solution capable of providing value out of the box. Previously, heavy enterprise systems stifled agility and locked organizations into expensive and lengthy implementations. The trade-off between out of the box value and product fit is the tight rope that technology solutions development must walk. Most of us have been touched by SharePoint at some point in our careers. SharePoint is half a file management application, and half a fully customizable collaborative process management platform. SharePoint is a product that can provide both out-of-the-box value through a file management application, as well as provide customized product fit through a configurable platform.
Deep diving into SharePoint, it is the proverbial rabbit hole. MERAK’s most popular blog, SharePoint: Folder vs Meta-data from 2013, debates the pros and cons of two popular file management structures within SharePoint. Modern solutions offer a mix of out of the box solutions and customization; which create two layers of maintenance. The first layer is that the user is responsible for maintaining the object placed on top of the platform, the second is the platform layer for which the user has little control. Updates to the platform can impact user-created solutions. SharePoint is a great example, as it has seen significant development over the years. Raise your hand if the removal of SharePoint designer caused issues at your organization.
To get the most out of modern software solutions, there are some key elements to be aware of. SaaS solutions are most effective when the data and processes can operate in isolation without impacting the customer experience. If collaboration needs are high, develop solutions within a platform. Business process automation is very popular right now, and platforms will not be able to provide all the tools necessary to cleanly solve every problem. Many users will employ workarounds, which are technical debt traps if not used prudently. When building solutions within platforms, be very wary of using workarounds to replicate a feature not available within the platform. Monthly costs between business and enterprise tiers for some service offerings can be dramatic, though, the increased fees can be negligible compared to paying back technical debt for reversing a poorly engineered solution. It is worthwhile to dedicate resources to understanding the feature roadmap of the platform your organization is working with. Modern software solutions are akin to constructing an office tower on a shifting foundation; to prevent failures, know the platform’s development direction, plan development around platform feature releases, limit workarounds and be prudent when accumulating technical debt.