Cautionary Tales: Enterprise Software Edition
A few weeks ago, I was talking about CRM (Customer Relationship Management) software. Essentially, CRM should help a company (as Dennis Howlett – business software blogger put it), “sell more stuff.”
I don’t have a problem with that result. We can argue all day long abo really “needed” as opposed to “pushed”. That’s a philosophical debate, indeed, it’s a MORALISTIC debate. In Obama’s address to the USA (re: BP oil sands) he prayed for a “hand to guide us.” Was he talking about the hand of god, or the invisible hand? … But I digress.
My point about CRM was much less lofty. CRM systems are simply about attempting to know your customer. How much data can we collate and analyze in order to maximize our value proposition? Or, if you’re a cynic – how can we, as Homer Simpson would say, “cram one more salty treat into America’s already bloated snack hole?”
Sidenote: Back in the heyday of the SUV craze, there was a great interview on 60 Minutes with some analyst/pundit who described the motivation that seemed to underlie the populating of these beasts. He described it as “reptilian.” The term stuck with me and I find it helpful to think about in around any purchasing decision of consequence. A well executed CRM can create a veritable “Jurassic Park” of suckers if that is what one is so inclined to create. Although, it doesn’t have to be that way. It doesn’t have to be evil.
My point this week though is less about CRM per se and more about what happens when an enterprise software implementation goes awry. A different kind of evil. There have been two big stories recently detailing lawsuits being leveled against firms who had been contracted to install an enterprise system and had allegedly failed to deliver on the contract.
In one case, EDS (now owned by Hewlett Packard) just agreed to pay British Sky Broadcasting $460 million for a failed CRM implementation. This was from a project undertaken in the year 2000 and abandoned two years later. The settlement is four times the value of the budgeted project cost.
In a second case, Marin County, CA is suing Deloitte Consulting for an alleged failure in rolling out an ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) system. Marin County is seeking $30 million. Their contention is that Deloitte didn’t have the technical skills on the software in question. That’s an important point. This type of technical skill is of the “use it or lose it” variety.
So, is that the answer? When a software implementation goes awry, you sue everyone? Well, sometimes.
You see, buying an enterprise software system isn’t like buying a vehicle. You can’t just hand the wheel over to your reptilian brain and pray for the invisible hand to hook up financing and you’re on your way.
There’s work involved, normally a third party, that is paid to configure the software and integrate it into your organization’s existing infrastructure. In a complex business model, the process of defining and integrating all the business rules, data flows, and connections can be daunting… sometimes, impossible. Failure, unfortunately, is always an option.
These recent examples deal with alleged failures on the part of the third party implementers, but failures can occur anywhere within “hell’s half-acre.”
I’ve seen examples where it was clearly a management failure to provide project leadership that created an implementation failure. The example I am thinking about resulted in the company taking a $2 million dollar charge then having to start over. When I went to see them, it looked like they were heading right back down the same road. Making the same mistakes. Me? I can’t help someone who doesn’t want to be helped.
Some folks point to Saas products as a way to alleviate these nightmare scenarios. If only it was that easy. Wherever a business has an existing IT architecture, there is the possibility of an integration problem (assuming you want integrated systems which I have to believe that you’ll want). There is another company I can think of who, when I met them, had been working for at least 6 months on an integration with a Saas ERP system and their back office. For a number of reasons, it really just didn’t seem like it was going to work. And the red flag for me was that the CFO and the Director of Finance had vastly different views as to how the project was going.
These are just a couple examples I can name from my own experiences and I’m not even in the software implementation game!
The moral of the story is know the statement of work inside out. Understand the terms of the contract. Technical skills are finite. Be very clear on the desired outcomes.
And beware of the reptilian brain.
Geoff Devereux as been active in Vancouver’s technology start-up community for the past 5 years. Prior to getting lured into tech start-ups, Geoff worked in various fields including a 5 year stint in a tax accounting firm. You can see more of his posts for GC here.