Ladder Apps

October 20, 2010

The other day, my 2nd grader told me how to get to the moon. Take a ladder and lean it up against the house. Climb up the ladder with a second ladder and put the two together. Then iterate.

I was reminded of this the other day when I read yet another press release from a software company, which promised improved profitability and massive ROI from one of its apps. I happened to be familiar with this species of app, and it seemed to me that it was just like my daughter’s ladder. You could start on your way to the moon with it, but in fact, the only way it was really going to help you get there was if you took the ladder and leaned it up against the airlock of a rocket ship.

This app is what I want to call a “ladder” app, an app that can indeed take you in the direction that you want to go, but that is all. It can’t actually get you there, and any time you spend on it is going to be wasted.

I’ve written about ladder apps before. There was the replenishment application used by a Belgian retailer that was reported on by Vishal Gaur of Cornell. The app calculated the optimum replenishment time and amount for every item in the store, but it optimized on the wrong thing, so every one of its recommendations was wrong. Every manager had to spend 10-15% of the work week correcting each individual recommendation or run short.

Or there was SAP’s famous Solution Manager, which would supposedly make your use of the SAP product and SAP support more effective, but only if you documented every process, custom application, and integration where SAP was or might be involved.

How can you tell whether something is a ladder app? It can be very difficult, believe me. Those ladder ideas always sound plausible; it’s only when you look into them that you find that there’s some insuperable barrier.

One rule of thumb. If it sounds hard, it probably is. If some guy knocks on your door and says, “We can get you to the moon,” look around very, very carefully. He’s probably got a ladder on the truck, so he can show you just how high he can get you and how fast.