Every organization has them, every IT director hates them, every manager needs them. What are they? They are the unique, specific and situational applications that make each organization different. They represent the competitive advantage potential that could distinguish a good company from a great one, a successful division from a looser, profitability versus bankruptcy. They are the enterprise applications that everyone agrees are needed but never got built.
From Sand Hill Road to Wall Street to Bangalore, the waste baskets of venture capital firms large and small are filled to the rim with crumpled up plans for yet another "killer" application. Sneak into the budgeting meetings of any CIO in corporate America and you will witness of an ever increasing list of applications that users need but can't be built or bought. Talk to any executive or line of business manager and you will hear frustration over a belief that if there were better automation, a more streamlined process or the availability quicker and better data, their organization would be that much more effective.
Yet the unique applications to address these issues are rarely built. Why...?
Inevitably, the answer always boils down to risk. VC's won't fund an idea that doesn't promise a huge return. You will never see a commercially available application for managing witch craft potions backed by VC. It's the same reason that most savvy IT personals will always exhaust their efforts researching branded solutions before they attempt to build something on their own, since a build ultimately robs them of their most expensive resource...time.
It seems custom development is just too risky. So how does one estimate the risk? Obviously it is a function of cost. The money at risk in custom application development falls into three categories; hard funds, soft funds and opportunity. For the hardware, software and infrastructure on which the solution will be built, it is relatively simple come to a number. In terms of time and effort of internal, professional or contract resources, the number gets more nebulous. But the real risk lies in the opportunity costs of doing nothing, doing something and doing it wrong or just buying and delaying the eventual integration and user adoption problems. This long range cost is like deferred interest, sooner or later it must get paid.
As the cost of technology continues to fall (Moore's Law) the availability of basic technology components increases, the risk of failure in terms of hard costs is becoming more tolerable. In fact, the new motto is fail and fail quickly since the real barrier is time. We all know time is money, but simply accounting for developers' time isn't sufficient as that cost can be "off-shored" for close to nothing. Even if the hardware, software and development effort were all free, 75% of all custom development projects would still fail.
The real reason, and thus the high costs associated with the risk, is the difficulty in translating domain expertise into technological solutions. Every executive knows the frustration of taking the time to sit with technical resources, map out a solution, invest in the hardware/software infrastructure and dedicate their own time to describe a solution that they eagerly anticipate just to have it be something completely different than they expected. At some point in this nose dive process, the app will become "orphaned" and the later it happens, the more costly it is.
So what is the vehicle for most executives to put some structure around their processes and evolve them into productivity? Well, nine times out of ten, the idea is abandoned all together. In the unusual case that it isn't, typically the answer starts with a spreadsheet. Spreadsheets are ubiquitous, every manager learned Lotus or Excel in college, and these days are the default development and BI tool for most business executives. Just about anyone can figure out how to use them, even CEO's.
But spreadsheets have limits. As personal productivity tools they allow individuals to organize and structure data for better analysis, but when one actually wants to work with large volumes of data, automate its capture and collaborate with others, the shortcomings quickly become obvious.
Where spreadsheets fall short, databases shine; they easily handle massive amounts of data, will accept one at a time inputs or bulk uploads and enforce structure and conformity for collaboration and standardization. They are also excellent for acting as the "single source of truth" for a group or an organization and single database can host hundreds of applications, although few organizations adopt this concept.
Their downfall is complexity, expense and maintenance. Further, they take time to implement, a process which more complicated if the database is accessible to the internet. Given the cost and complexity, time and effort needed to implement database driven solutions, most executives retreat shyly from them unless the expertise and resources are already a sunk cost.
How does the Cloud impact this?
Outside of very large companies where such costs are sunk, now databases are virtually available "in the sky" for next to nothing. As a result the power of enterprise class databases applications is now available to leadership in small and mid-sized companies. In fact, with their cost and complexity no longer an issue, the problem now is TOO many databases. Where most companies used to be faced with the acquisition of one or two large applications to act as a "systems of record" now companies have 100's of SaaS vendors banging down their doors, each running on different databases with different structures, entities and nomenclatures. Navigating this paradigm is becoming a real challenge for the modern CIO.
Witness the rise of literally thousands of situational applications available now as a service for just a few dollars per month. Recently, a Google query of CRM vendors produced over 5,000,000 hits. Spend the hours necessary to whittle that down to real vendors and one still must contend with 10's of thousands. Even if the CRM functionality is only a couple of dollars per month, when added to the HR, expense management, reporting and so on, those tiny numbers quickly become huge. Add to that the cost integration, training and simple configuration and the platform approach quickly becomes the beacon of sanity.
What then is the platform for the orphaned applications? Or any enterprise or organizational database driven application for that matter? What is needed is a set of tools that is as easy to use as a spreadsheet that sits on top of one these databases in the sky. And that instance better be trusted. Give a CEO simple tools and access to such a cloud based environment and theoretically the days of the orphan applications could be over. In fact, the days of vertically dedicated database driven applications probably are too.
So please, help us find homes for these orphaned applications, a place where they can be loved and used and be of service to the organization that need them. A warm and happy platform on which to live, somewhere in the Cloud...