Beware the Silver Bullets

 Posted by on Nov 2, 2010  Add comments
Nov 022010

Sometimes I wonder if, as an industry, we ever learn. Two recent projects that I’ve worked on got me thinking about this. In both cases, the companies are replacing existing custom-built applications with new commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) applications. And while that in itself is not necessarily a bad strategy (in fact, I absolutely agree with that approach for one of these clients), problems arise when the expectations and promises are out of line with reality.

Recently, I upgraded my 30-year-old television to a nice new flat screen and accompanying 7.1 Audio/Video System. It sounds and looks great and so, naturally, I want to be able to watch and hear Internet content over my fancy-pants new system. That requires hooking my computer into the mix. After scouring the Internet, I discovered two seemingly viable options, an S-video to VGA cable, or a VGA to component-video cable. But, after looking into it more, it turns out that neither actually works. The first option is only one way — S-video out to VGA in — and doesn’t work in the other direction (go figure). Option two requires the video card to support special “TV mode” capabilities (oops). Good old VGA-to-VGA works but circumvents the video capabilities of the receiver. Oh, well.

But what’s that have to do with COTS? Well, COTS applications are like the video cable. At a high level, they ought to work, but often the reality is not quite what we expected, or requires special processing and modifications on our end. Yet it seems that the “silver bullet syndrome” is alive and well, and we continue to believe that a technology purchase (new cable) will solve all our business problems. This blind faith in vendors and technical solutions is puzzling to me, and quite contrary to the facts.

A while back, Cutter Senior Consultant William Ulrich published the results of a survey on COTS applications (“Application Package Software: The Promise versus Reality“) in Cutter Benchmark Review. The focus of the survey included the following:

  • Adaptability of the business to align the package with business processes.
  • Ability of IT to integrate the package with other applications and related data.
  • Customization requirements versus the perception of how much the package would need to change prior to implementation.
  • Overall success in terms of implementing and benefiting from the package.

A summary of the results is as follows:

  • Asked about the extent to which respondents modified organizational and business processes to fit the COTS package, three-quarters modified their business processes somewhat or a great deal. Only 2% of respondents did not modify business processes at all to adapt to the package.
  • Respondents enacted process flow changes to complete business activities 65% of the time. Half of the respondents enacted changes to organizational roles and responsibilities, while another 36% enacted a great deal or moderate degree of changes to organizational reporting relationships.
  • Only 28% of respondents fully deployed the application package.
  • Nearly one-quarter (24%) of respondents modified their packages a great deal, while another 54% modified them somewhat.
  • Nearly half of respondents (49%) say that the changes exceeded what was anticipated and what was budgeted for.
  • Of respondents, 40% report that realizing benefits had been quite difficult or extremely difficult and only 18% report that it had been easy to realize benefits.
  • Nonetheless, there were real gains in operational efficiencies and customer satisfaction for organizations that deployed application packages.
  • However, organizations are not meeting the objectives envisioned when they initially decided to obtain an application package and are not gaining bottom-line value commensurate with the challenges associated with the implementation effort.
  • Morethan 60% of respondents report that users resisted the removal of existing application systems. In other words, users favored their existing applications over the functionality provided by the new application package.

Is this really any surprise? As always, technology itself is not a solution to business problems. At best, it is an enabler to solving them if, at the same time, the company makes the necessary business, process, and organizational changes required. Only then will the potential values and efficiencies of any package be realized. So, if you’re contemplating the acquisition of a COTS application, make sure you go into it with your eyes wide open. There are no silver bullets, just enablers and hard work.


Mike Rosen

Michael Rosen has more than 20 years technical leadership experience architecting, designing, and developing software products and applications.


  One Response to “Beware the Silver Bullets”

  1. The cause may be structural – relating to the organization of IT. Repeated failures to deploy large COTs as replacements are legion and well documented on the fed space. Here’s are some interesting views that support this notion:

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