A few days ago, I argued that a company that wants to replace its old, limping systems with a brand, spanking new Oracle or SAP application should probably wait for the next generation of apps.

The post got a lot of approving comments, which surprised me. I think there are pretty good arguments for just hauling off and buying. Consider what one of these hypothetical companies might say in defense of a decision to buy now rather than later.

1. We’ve got the money now and we should spend it.

2. The product we’ll get will be much more reliable.

3. The cost of services surrounding the product will be lower.

4. We don’t know when the new products will be out (with the possible exception of Workday 10).

5. We don’t know what will be in the new product.

Imagine what idiots we’d look like, the buyer might say, if we waited for five years for a product that was no better than what we could buy today and far more incomplete and buggy.

I see the force of this, which is why I thought it was a close call. Ultimately, I did decide it’s better to wait for markedly better products that are coming, despite the risks and delays. But I saw why people would disagree.

So are my commenters intemperate or am I dithering? One test for this is to look at the case of somebody who is not considering a replacement, but is considering a fairly big investment in the existing platform. Maybe they’re considering an upgrade, or maybe they’re considering some extension products, or maybe they want to push their existing installation out to other geographies.

This is a very realistic case. Several companies I know fairly well are considering one or more of these options. One is upgrading to Oracle 11i; another wants to upgrade to Infor LN. Still another wants to extend its QAD implementation to another geography. Still another wants to buy a CRM system from its existing vendor.

For each of these companies, the details matter a lot, but on reflection, I think the same argument applies. It will be hard to get the return on this big new investment in the old platform, because the useful life of what is to you a new product is not long enough to justify the expense.

This raises two questions. First, how does one calculate “useful life.” Most of the companies I’m thinking of believe that the useful life is defined only by how long they’re willing to use it, and for some companies, that’s pretty long. (There are, after all, big SAP clients who are still using R/2.) I think this is wrong, but I’m going to have to hold off explaining why till a later blog.

The second question is, “Assuming that the commenters and I are right, what kinds of investments should companies who have decided to wait actually make?” I have no determinate answers to this, but I think there are some guidelines.

Start with Gavin’s comment on the previous post. Gavin points out that some investments in the Oracle infrastructure and in new Fusion-based products will actually take you toward the next Oracle generation. He is quite right; Oracle designed things this way, and partly because of the problem that I’m describing, they quite deliberately created some ways of investing in products from Oracle without locking yourself into an older technology.

There are many, many caveats, of course. Among other things, if you have an Oracle system now, you might not want Oracle in the future. The three main products I mentioned in the earlier post (Workday, Business by Design, and Fusion Applications) are all highly differentiated, each with its own flaws and virtues. A rational person would do well to look at all of them before deciding to stick with the vendor they have now. (This applies to SAP customers, too.)

Even if you are bent on Oracle, you still may want to take some time thinking through your infrastructure stack before investing in pieces of it. Even the examples Gavin gives like OpenID, which are likely to be pretty good, may not be right in the long run, and if they aren’t, that will be a lot of trouble and expense gone to waste.

You should note that Gavin’s argument almost certainly will apply to SAP, as well. SAP is also workng on “hybrid” intermediate solutions, and I’ll bet you dollars to donuts that they’re trying to figure out every way they can to ease the migration to the new system by asking you to make steady, rational investments in products that extend your current capabilities.

But what about customers for whom an infrastructure or extension investment isn’t right? Here, I think there are some interesting arguments, akin to Gavin’s, for small, light cloud-based apps, point solutions designed to solve highly specific problems. I’m not just talking about a CRM app or a call-center app or a recruiting app; I’m talking about things that are very, very specific to your industry, but really powerful, things like Tradestone in the apparel industry.

Another possibility is to spend some time and effort cleaning up your existing installation. This will improve its current effectiveness, extend its useful life, and very possibly lower the cost of the new system significantly. (A lot of the cost of any implementation is cleaning up after the mess left by a system that everybody has given up on.)

There’s a very smart analyst in Europe, Helmuth Gümbel, who has spent a lot of time thinking about this problem. He has a blog, and he also has a conference, Sapience, which goes into these questions at length. If you’re thinking about extending your current ERP to other geographies, a reasonable alternative might be to find lower-cost ERP systems to serve those geographies.

The basic theme running through these latter approaches is that while you’re waiting, you can focus on saving some money and preparing your current installation, thereby making the later transition to a newer technology faster and more affordable.

Is it time to wait? If it isn’t now, then when?

Wait, that is, for the next gen of applications–Workday HR and Financials, SAP Business by Design, or Oracle Fusion Application Suite–rather than go with what’s out there now: PeopleSoft 9, Oracle EBS 11, or SAP Business Suite–all quite good products, but limited in many ways.

My gut says, “Wait.”

Of course, unless you happen to be my gastroenterologist, you shouldn’t care much about what my gut says. So here’s the reasoning behind it, which I think you can adapt to your own purposes.

PeopleSoft, EBS, and BS were all designed in the early ’90s and are now mature. (There will be no fundamental improvements made to any of them.) So they’re roughly 20 years old. Let’s assume that this takes them halfway through their useful life.

Now let’s do some algebra. Assume that the new products have a similar useful life and offer a 30% improvement in overall effectiveness.
Say the net benefit of buying a this-gen system is 1. In that case, the net benefit of a system that’s 30% better and lasts twice as long is 2.6. Now assume that the net cost of not replacing your old system -.1/yr, which makes it very, very expensive to keep your old system. Even if you have to wait four years for the next-gen system, you’re twice as well off (2.2 vs. 1) waiting. Even if the next-gen system costs significantly more than the old one (fairly likely, depending on the vendor), it’s still a big win.

If you e-mail me, I can give you a spreadsheet, and you can run the numbers yourself.

You don’t need the spreadsheet, though, to see that the argument is a function of four factors: the relative benefit of adopting next-gen apps (over the life of both apps), the cost of implementing them, the risk of implementing them, and the cost of waiting.

A friend who reviewing this argument offered the following analogy. Let’s say you live in an older house whose roof is leaking, pipes are rusty, electrical way out of date. Sure, it’s time to move. But what if there were a big tax break coming fairly soon which would allow you to buy a much better house. As long as the break was big enough, my friend says, the best bet for most people is to wait, because it’s a house, houses last a long time, and being in the better house makes a big difference for a long time.

Even if things are pretty bad in the old house, he goes on to say, your best bet is just to fix the immediate problems: repair the roof, add some new wiring, etc.

Clearly, the biggest and most important factor is how much better that house will be. For a conservative company, this may seem to be a big unknown. But really, it’s not. If you look at any of the new-gen apps, the improvements they’re offering are fairly clear. None of them are killer or transformational; they won’t let you fly when you had been walking. They’re just the sort of things that anybody would add now that they have 20 years of perspective on the old designs.

What are those things? Well, better and faster access to data, what the other pundits call “embedded analytics.” The ability to do some level of search, without having to print out reports and trek down hierarchical menus to get to a record. The ability to bring other people into a discussion of a record, by e-mailing it or asking them to approve it or whatever. All of these things can be done in the old system. But it takes longer, is often a pain in the you-know, and is often not done. Systems that will have all these things built in will be systems where each of your employees wastes somewhat less time each day wrestling with a system that was never designed to have the flexibility and accessibility that the web era has taught us to expect from any application we deal with.

None of these is earth-shattering; indeed, I usually call the next-gen apps Version 1.3 because they’re really not that big an advance over the 20-year-old ERP applications that are Version 1.0. (Is a 2.0 coming? I think so.)

But taken in aggregate, I think they’ll make a material difference in your operational efficiency. Enough of a difference to be worth waiting for.

Does this really apply to your situation? What about that risk? What are the chances that you will get the gains that would justify waiting? What about the fact that your company is ready to move now and for you, such a move comes at the right time in your career? All good questions. And in some cases, it may be right to jump. But for most people, the best thing to do is to take steps to reduce the risk and time to benefit.

SAP announced yesterday that it was creating a two-tier support system, effectively reinstating its old Standard Support offering at a slightly increased price. (The new price is 18% of net versus the old 17% of net.)

This has been hailed as a U-Turn by press and analysts, all of which proves something to me: most writers can’t do math.

SAP begins its press release as follows (emphasis mine):

In a demonstration of its commitment to customer satisfaction, SAP AG (NYSE: SAP) today announced a new, comprehensive tiered support model that is being offered to customers worldwide. This support offering includes SAP Enterprise Support services and the SAP® Standard Support option and will enable all customers to choose the option that best meets their requirements.

So let’s look at the choice that’s being offered to customers; after you look at it, you can judge how much satisfaction it’s going to generate.

The cost of Enterprise Support this year is 18.36% of a base number, a number that usually stems from (but may not be identical to) the net amount paid for the SAP licenses that are being supported. So, this year, assuming that the base for a company was $100,000, the total cost of Enterprise Support is $18,360 and the total cost of Standard Support is $18,000.

Next year, the cost of Enterprise Support goes up to 18.9%, increasing to 22% by 2016. That means that in 2011, it is $18,900, and in 2016, it is $22,000. Those of you who are writers, I apologize for all these numbers, I know they do get confusing.

Now to Standard Support. With Standard Support, the percentage is fixed. But the base is not. It is subject to cost of living increases. We don’t know what COLA (cost of living adjustment) SAP will impose. But let’s just say for the sake of argument that it is 3.00%/year. In 2011, the cost will be $18,540.00, and in 2016, it will be $21,493.00.

All this is in a spreadsheet which you are welcome to look at and play with. (In the spreadsheet, I rounded 18.36% down, so the Enterprise Support costs are slightly low.) Assuming you’re not a writer and you want to play with the numbers, here’s what you’ll see. If the COLA is 3%/year, the costs of either kind of support will be very close for a long time to come. If the COLA is 1%, Standard Support will be quite a bit cheaper. And if it is 5%, Standard Support will be quite a bit more expensive.

It’s confusing, I know, but it’s true. If the COLA is 5%, then “18%” support will cost more than “22%” support. If the COLA is 3%, then “18%” support will cost about 2% less than “22%” support. And if the COLA is 1%, then the lower tier of support will cost about 10% less than the upper tier.

So what will it be. 5%? 3%? 1%? 0%? At the press conference, SAP didn’t say. There is no commitment to impose these increases and there is no commitment not to impose them. SAP, according to Léo Apotheker, “[has] the liberty of linking Standard Support [] to the cost of living index.” (Thanks Information Week.) Whatever their decision, the imposition of COLA will not be uniform. The cost of living index is the index for the country whose currency is the master currency for the contract, and the actual linkage to this actual index depends on the contract language, which varies.

So what are we to think? Whatever SAP is doing, it is not a U-Turn, and it is not a rescission of the price increase. It is offering customers a new choice, which I’ll characterize as follows:

1. Return to Standard Support and get less support than you got with Enterprise Support (though how much less is unclear) and price increases in the form of COLA (though how much increase is unclear).

2. Stay with/sign up for Enterprise Support and get more support (how much more is unclear, but I’ve been posting on this and will post more) and definite, clear price increases in the form of increases in the maintenance percentage.

It’s a choice. But is it really the sort of choice customers want?

And is offering this choice really an example of a commitment to customer satisfaction?

Over the past few years, a cadre of “independent” analysts have set up shop and started to speak frankly about the enterprise application vendors, in their blogs and tweets. You know who I’m talking about: Vinnie, of course, and Dennis, and the Enterprise Irregulars, and Brian , and many, many others. These people were really good analysts to begin with–I’ve known them for years–and they have found their more-or-less independent status freeing, so they write the best stuff that is out there.

So if they’ve got a better mousetrap, why is it that the big guys, Forrester and Gartner, just seem to roll on and on, happily enough? Why haven’t they folded, the way the portable CD player did when the iPod came out? In the free market, after all, shouldn’t consumers pick the best quality at the lowest prices?

I got an interesting answer, yesterday, when I attended a talk at Harvard by Marc Flandreau, who is at the Graduate Institute of Development and International Studies, Geneva. Marc is an expert on bad-mouthing, or as we like to say in English, “blackmail.” And he has a fascinating historical explanation of how pay-to-play can emerge in information markets.

Marc’s focus is the wild and woolly bond market in Paris pre-World War I, a market that was deeply affected by the emergence of a free (or at least libel-free) press in France, post 1880. At the time, it was so easy to start and print a newspaper cheaply that a new kind of blackmail emerged. It was, essentially, “Pay us, or we’ll say bad things about you.” The very relaxed libel laws at this time made this a genuine threat, and people (Marc shows) really did make money doing it.

In the financial markets, the threat took the form, “Mr. Russian Government, pay us, or we’ll publish an article saying that you’re losing the then-active Russo-Japanese war.” And, as it turns out, the Russian Government paid up. The records, which were published in the 1930s, show that the government’s expenditure on publicité went up by a factor of two or more during that period, over what would “normally” be expected.

The interesting thing, though, is where the money went. Essentially, a set of what we would now call unscrupulous PR men (possibly, a redundancy, I admit) who took the blackmail money and distributed it among the press.

Now, here is the rub. Most of the money apparently went to the most reputable, most stable, and most expensive financial journals, not to the blackmailers. What these people tried to do with the bribe money was to make blackmail expensive, by “supporting” an alternate, established, reputable forum, which people would look to for authoritative information, and the existence of this forum brought the threat of blackmail from the cheap-sheet vendors down to acceptable levels.

Flandreau demonstrates fairly convincingly that while some money did go to throw-away (sometimes one-issue) newspapers, most of the money went to those journals and was a significant source of income for them.

“So if I may paraphrase,” a Harvard professor said, after hearing this, “The National Enquirer is one of the things that keeps The New York Times alive.” Marc replied in the affirmative.

Marc’s broad conclusion is that a pay-to-play industry will emerge whenever there is a significant threat from “badmouthing.” (He cites Moody’s as a modern-day example of the same phenomenon.) In all these cases (I think movie stars of the 1920s are another example), the best strategy for coping with badmouthing is to support cooperative, but reputable mouthpieces who will then be a permanent counter to whatever bad things are said by the smaller, less reputable people. In his analysis, the accuracy of what these smaller, less reputable people say is irrelevant; it could be true, it could be false. What matters is that you can exert some control over the best people in the industry.

Anybody who has ever taken a PR class already knows this, of course. But what Flandreau contributes are two simple, but odd facts. The premiums are in fact very large, and MOST of the money goes to the larger, more reputable firms.

So what does this mean for Dennis and Vinnie and Brian and Michael Krigsman and Helmuth Gümbel? Well, pretty much it means that their efforts are enriching Gartner and Forrester far more than it enriches them.

Dennis says in a recent tweet, “Pay to play doesn’t cut it.” Sorry Dennis, in this case you’re just wrong. If Marc is right (and I have no reason to think he isn’t), what you’re really doing is supporting the pay-to-play industry.

Has it ever occurred to you that software salespeople get a bad rap? In the popular imagination, they have blood dripping from their fangs. But in my experience, that’s not what they’re like at all. don’t. The ones I know are pretty decent folk, live in the suburbs, maybe even coach soccer. Not one of them would actually throw their mothers under a bus in order to get the deal. At least, I don’t think they would.

So what accounts for this reputation? Well, in the course of writing this series of blogs on brittle apps, I think I’ve come up with an answer of sorts.

Start with a fact that you should know, but maybe haven’t paid much attention to. Good software salespeople don’t sell software. They sell benefits. They don’t try to confuse you with features or functions or architecture; they try to make you understand what those things will do for you.

This is what they should be doing. After all, the buyers of software don’t really know about or understand what the features do, and they don’t have the patience to figure out exactly how the features produce the benefits. You’re a CEO or CFO, you want to get to the point. What is the value that these products deliver?

Software salespeople have developed this reputation, I think, because people have discovered or heard or found that the benefits aren’t available. And they think the salesperson knew this all along and, like some snake-oil salesman was promising a cure for cancer in order to wrest the last dollar out of some old lady’s handbag.

But in my experience, that’s not what’s going on at all. The salespeople actually have a fairly rational, if optimistic view of their product. They know that the products are designed to achieve certain benefits; they can see themselves how the design could work; and they probably know of customers who have achieved the benefits they should achieve. At worst, they’re like a Ferrari or a Jaguar salesman, who focuses on the riding experience and doesn’t feel it is incumbent upon him to bring up the repair records.

People like Dennis Moore would go even further in the software salesman’s defense, and perhaps they’re right. They would say that the salesperson is more like a good physical trainer, who can genuinely promise to get you in better shape if you’ll work out. If after you buy, you don’t want to put in what it takes to get the benefits, that’s your problem not theirs.

So is Dennis right (assuming he would agree with the words I’m putting in his mouth); when somebody buys software and underutilizes or puts it on the shelf, is it entirely their problem. Well, no. I think it would be if they realized how brittle these applications really are. But in my experience, they rarely do. They buy this Ferrari, go out on a Sunday afternoon, and only when they find themselves riding back next to the tow truck driver, do they find out what they’ve bought.

So whose problem is it? Well, I’ve already gone on too long. You’ll have to wait until the next post.

“Brittle” design isn’t limited to enterprise application software. You can find brittle design in cars, bridges, buildings, TVs, or even the vegetable bin. (What are those 1/2-pint boxes of $5.00 raspberries, 3/4 of which are moldy, but examples of brittle design?)

What do brittle designs have in common? The designer chose to accentuate high performance at the expense of other reasonable design parameters, like cost, reliability, usability, etc. A Ferrari goes very, very fast, and it feels good when it goes fast, and that’s a design choice. And it’s part of the design choice that the car requires a technician or two to keep it going fast for longer than an afternoon.

So why are most enterprise applications brittle? You can see this coming a mile away. It was a design choice. The enterprise applications in question were designed to be the Ferraris of their particular class of application. They were designed to do the most, have the most functionality, be the most strategic, appeal to the most advanced early adopters, be the most highly differentiated, etc.

To get Ferrari-like performance, they had to make the same design choices Ferrari did. They had to assume the application was perfectly tuned every time the key was turned, and they had to assume that the technicians were there to perform the tuning.

Enterprise applications, you see, were intended to run on the best, the highest-end machines (for their class). They were intended to be set up by experts. They were intended to be maintained by people who had the resources to do what was necessary. They were intended to satisfy the demands of good early-adopter customers who put a lot of pressure on them, with complex pricing schemes or intricate accounting, even if later on, it made setting the thing up complex, increased the chance that there were bugs, and made later upgrades expensive.

This wasn’t bad design; it was good design, especially from the marketing point of view. The applications that put the most pressure on every other design parameter got the highest ratings, attracted the earliest early adopters, recruited the most capable (and highest-cost) implementers, etc., etc. So they won in the marketplace and beat out other applications in their class that made different design choices.

I lived through this when I worked at QAD. At QAD, the founder (Pam Lopker) made different design choices. She built a simple app, one that was pretty easy to understand and pretty easy to set up and did the basics. And for about two years, shortly after I got there, she had the leading application in the marketplace. And then SAP and JDE and PeopleSoft came in and cleaned our clock with applications that promised to do more.

Now, none of the people who actually bought SAP instead of QAD back then or chose (later) to try to replace QAD with SAP did this because they really wanted high performance, per se. They wanted “value” and “flexibility” and “return on investment” and “marketable skills.” They literally didn’t realize that the value and flexibility came at a cost, that the cost was that the application was brittle and that therefore, the value or flexibility or whatever was only achievable if you did everything right.

If they had realized this, would they have made different choices?

I don’t know. I remember a company that made kilns in Pittsburgh that had been using QAD for many years. The company had been taken over by a European company that used SAP, and the CIO had been sent over from Germany to replace the QAD system with the one that was (admittedly) more powerful. He called me in (years after I had worked at QAD) to help him justify the project.

I looked at it pretty carefully, and I shook my head. Admittedly, the QAD product didn’t do what he wanted. But I didn’t like the fit with SAP. I was worried that the product designed for German kiln production just wasn’t going to work. I didn’t want to be right, and I was disappointed to find out that two years later, despite very disciplined and careful efforts, he was back in Germany and QAD was still running the company.

I’m glossing over a lot, of course. There are secondary effects. Very often, the first user of an application dominates its development, so the app will be tuned to the users strengths and weaknesses. It will turn out to be brittle for other users because they don’t have the same strengths. Stuff that was easy for the first user then turns out to be hard for others.

Two final points need to be made. First, when a brittle application works, it’s GREAT. It can make a huge difference to the user. Brian Sommer frequently points out that the first users of an application adopt it for the strategic benefit, but later users don’t. He thinks it’s because the benefit gets commoditized. But I think it’s at least partially because the first users are often the best equipped to get the strategic benefit, whereas later users are not. I think you see something of the same issue, too, in many of Vinnie Mirchandani’s comments about the value that vendors deliver (or don’t deliver).

Second, as to the cause of failure. Michael Krigsman often correctly says that projects are a three-legged stool and that the vendors are often blamed for errors that could just as easily be blamed on the customers. Dennis Moore often voices similar thoughts. With brittle systems, of course, they’re quite right; the failure point can come anywhere. But when they say this, I think they may be overlooking how much the underlying design has contributed.

It may be the technician’s fault that he dropped the beaker of nitrogycerin. But whose brilliant idea was it to move nitroglycerin around in a beaker?

In the last few posts, I’ve been talking about “brittle” applications, applications that just don’t work unless everything goes right. We all know lots of analogues for these apps in other areas: the Ferrari that coughs and chokes if it’s not tuned once a week or the souffle that falls if you just look at it funny. But it doesn’t occur to most people that many, if not most enterprise applications fall into the same category.

They don’t realize, that is, that ordinary, run of the mill, plain-vanilla enterprise apps are kind of like Ferraris: it takes a lot to get them to do what they’re supposed to do.

Here are some examples.

Consider, for instance, the homely CRM application. Many, if not most executive users go to the trouble of buying and putting one in because they want the system to give them an actionable view of the pipeline. Valuable stuff, if you can get it. When the pipeline is down, you can lay people off or try new marketing campaigns. When it’s up, you can redeploy resources.

Unfortunately, though, it takes a lot to get a CRM system to do this. If, for instance, the pipeline data is inaccurate, it won’t be actionable. Say a mere 10% of the salesforce is so good or so recalcitrant that their pipeline data just can’t be trusted. You just won’t be able to use your system for that purpose.

It’s kind of funny, really. Giving you actionable pipeline data is a huge selling point for these CRM systems. But when was the last time you personally encountered one that was 90% accurate.

Another example I ran into recently was workforce scheduling in retail. A lot of retailers buy these things. But it’s clear from looking at them that the scheduling can be very easily blown.

Finally, take the example I talked about before, MRP. When you run that calculation, you have to get all the data right, or the MRP calculation can’t help you be responsive to demand. If even 30% of the lead times are off, you won’t be able to trust much of the run. And when was the last time more than 70% of the lead times were right.

Notice that if you underutilize a brittle system, it can be somewhat serviceable. If you use the CRM system to follow the performance of the salespeople who use it and don’t try to use the totals, the inaccuracy doesn’t matter. If you just use MRP to generate purchase requisitions, the lead times don’t matter. But, as I said in the earlier post, if you do underutilize the system, the amount of the benefit available falls precipitously. And then the whole business case that justified this purchase and all this effort just crumples.

What makes me think that a lot of enterprise applications are brittle? Well, I have a lot of practical, personal experience. But setting that to one side, it’s always seemed to me that the notion of brittle application explains a lot of data that is otherwise very puzzling.

Take for instance all the stuff that Michael Krigsman tells us about project failures. He is constantly reminding us that the cause of failure is a three-legged stool, that it could be the vendor or the consultant or the company, and he is surely right. What ought to be puzzling about this, though, is why there is no redundancy, why the efforts of one group can’t be redoubled to make up for failings in another. If the apps themselves are brittle, however, it takes all three groups working at full capacity to make the project work.

Or, more generally, look at the huge number of project failures (what’s the number, 40%, are abandoned?). Given how embarrassing and awful it is to throw away the kind of money that enterprise app projects take, you’d think that most people would declare some level of victory and go home, unless the benefit they actually got was so far from what they were hoping for that the whole effort became pointless.

How can you tell whether the enterprise app you’re looking at is brittle? Well, look at the failure rate. If companies in your industry historically report a lot of trouble getting these things to work, or if the “reference” installations that you look at have a hard time explaining how they’re getting the benefits that the salesman is promising you, it’s probably a brittle app.

Two questions remain. When do you want to bite the bullet and put in a brittle app? And why would vendors create apps that are intrinsically brittle?

Next post.

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