At Solidus we have long advocated an incremental and componentised approach to business systems implementation. Judging by Jo Best’s article, Shared services: centres are over-budget and ERP overly complex, (Guardian Government Computing, 7 March 2012) the National Audit Office and other commentators are increasingly coming to the same view.
For over thirty years our view has been that a “Lego-like” approach to building systems was the way to go. It avoids the legacy system lock-in to outdated technologies and properly executed it provides flexibility to meet changing business needs. It is starting to happen; even complex web sites are built using content management systems (Drupal, Joomal!, WordPress et al) which support and encourage the use of third party components often with no need for any bespoke programming. It supports the commoditisation of business software development and all but eliminates the need for large and expensive technical teams. Business systems can simply be configured using off the shelf components by business users.
Traditional large, essentially monolithic, systems built on legacy technology platforms like many ERP systems are still being sold; the vendors have so much invested in them switching to new technology would hurt profits. Unfortunately it means the huge costs of implementing such systems and integrating them with the business falls on clients as described in the Guardian article. But it is not just the consultancy costs; it is the cost to the client of long development cycles, delays and the sheer scale of the risk they face.
The argument then supports Solidus’ other major issue with long and large implementation projects that fail to deliver real benefits. In a highly dynamic business world multi-year implementations are out of place and must be high risk. Over that time business needs change so a long-term project either has to absorb expensive change requests or it fails to meet the business objective that has moved during development. Instead serial development of much smaller functionality will deliver almost immediate benefits and at less risk. That reduced risk and more manageable scope also reduces costs and opens up the opportunity of using small and innovating organisations with reduced overheads.
The component approach supports such an approach and with the other tools that are now available for rapid process automation it is happening. For example, in just three weeks Norfolk Constabulary has created a new application to support the recommendations of the Winsor Report of the Independent Review of Police Officer Pay and Conditions.For some time Norfolk Police have been using enAct process automation tools for human resources self-service, and other operational systems. As a result the HR team were able to develop the new application themselves with almost no external help. As Deborah Amiss, Senior HR Manager – HR Consultancy (Norfolk), said:
The benefits of having team members able to develop new screens and processes for us in house is invaluable and whenever I ask them they seem to be able to enhance or develop the system to support process evolution. An exceptional selling point of the enAct system and enCircle.
The combination of a service based architecture built with off the shelf components and user-friendly tools makes rapid incremental systems development possible. It means benefits of new automation can start to flow within days and weeks rather than months and years. The resulting systems are inherently flexible and can quickly respond to changing business needs. As Norfolk Constabulary, and others, have found, changes can often be created, tested and implemented within hours by non-technical users themselves. Such small scale releases of much-needed capability deliver “quick wins” that match long-term plans whilst reducing cost and risk. Even so they still scale to provide an enterprise level business and systems architecture that can respond to dynamic operational needs.
Norfolk and Suffolk Constabularies will be taking this approach further as they will be using these systems and tools to support their collaboration strategy. Using the flexibility provided by incremental and component-based development means they can manage convergence as the organisational changes allow. This will enable them to have the benefits of shared services now without the cost or long wait for shared service centres to be developed.
As their collaboration strategy shows this whole approach supports real innovation, especially in business operations. It allows the business user to make small changes as soon as they are identified rather than having to wait until there is a “project” with enough in it to be able to make a business case for a large scale development. Many of the tools, such as enAct, and related components can be bought simply from the G-cloud catalogue so avoiding complex and time-consuming procurements. It genuinely supports and encourages business change, creating a culture of continuous improvement. As it can be led and implemented by the business, for the business, it inherently has the buy-in of the key stakeholders; staff.
It was summed up by Darren Woods of enCircle when he said:
It’s like the Emperor’s New Clothes - Everyone can see the truth but very few people are prepared to point out the failings. Every few years the acronym changes and promises the solution, when actually things get worse! The Guardian article explains this with far less emotion than I can.