There’s an old saying in car racing that goes something like “you can’t win the race in the first corner, but you can lose it.” There is a similar truth when talking about software. The right software will not fix your problems, but the wrong software will surely exacerbate them. This, then, is a little story about choosing the wrong software.
Just prior to Christmas 2015 I took on a small project in Vermont. It was a bit of a weird situation in that the project was a mashup of two projects I’d done the previous year; the client was in the same business as another client, and the project was the same as a different client. No matter.
The client wanted to find out why their staff wasn’t in love with the Enterprise Content Management (ECM) solution they’d deployed a few years earlier and why things were failing. With a few exceptions this could have been a copy of an assessment I did for a university (detailed in this post & case study). The key differences were the technology chosen and the business the two organizations are in. In the case of the university, at least they chose the right type of technology for their needs. The folks in Vermont kinda, sorta, almost made the right choice, but not quite.
Back in 2008/09 their legal folks decided that they needed something to manage all their documents, so they went out and sourced a document management product targeted to professional services organizations. At the time no one was thinking holistically about what the organization needed. Whatever, it’ll all work out. Uhm, no.
As they were researching what to buy, they determined that their compliance and procurement departments had similar document management needs, so decided to deploy whatever they bought to those groups as well. There’s nothing wrong with trying to get more bang for your buck, assuming that the fit is right. Right?
My client went out and selected a product and got it implemented. Now, the implementation did not go smoothly, but that was nothing to do with the product and everything to do with selecting a less than stellar implementation partner. However, that’s not what this story is about, though you really need to be careful about selecting an implementation partner.
Once they got the implementation under way, they decided that the product they chose would be their ECM standard. There was a tiny problem; the product they selected was not an ECM product. As stated on their website [name withheld] “is the global leader in professional work product management”. The vendor’s target market is primarily law firms. Over the course of the project I spoke to the vendor and a couple of peers that work for organizations that use the vendor’s tools. They all agree that the product is not suitable as an ECM platform. The two peers I spoke to said that the product is very good if you use it for what it’s designed to do, but you’d be mad to try and use it as an ECM platform. To get back to my race car analogy; it’d be like trying to compete in the Dakar with a Formula One car.
But really, how bad could it be? Well, prior to implementing the product, everyone in the company knew where to find stuff, even though it was a pain. While they weren’t thrilled about using file shares, FTP, and email to store and share content, they knew how to work with the tools they had, regardless of how prehistoric they were. Now that they have the new platform, most people in the company are more than a little fed up:
- They file stuff and can’t find it again;
- They’re supposed to send links to colleagues, but have to rely on email because security is borked;
- Where previously there were standards, now many have their own way of doing things;
- Irritation with previous tools has been replaced, in many cases, with hostility;
- This list is not complete.
It’s gotten so bad that my client is seriously considering ripping out the solution they implemented and going back to using file shares. I wish I were kidding.
As my university client found out, choosing the right technology is no guarantee of success. However, as my Vermont client found out, choosing the wrong technology is a guarantee of failure. Choose wisely and do all those other things that come before selecting and implementing technology. After all, a solution / system is a combination of people, processes, and technology.
I wanted to try something a little different for this post. I’m doing an assessment of what went wrong with Alfresco for a Canadian university. They purchased Alfresco back in 2008/09, initially to handle some of their web content needs. Things haven’t gone so well. Below is a quick wrap up email I sent to the project sponsor after the first few days of stakeholder (patient?) interviews …
I just wanted to give you a quick recap of the last few days:
- Of the people I spoke to, no one advocated for getting rid of Alfresco
- Unless something to the contrary comes up in the next few weeks, there is no reason to believe that Alfresco is the problem
- Alfresco was likely the wrong choice back in 2008/09, but the product and company have since matured to the point where it’s no longer the case
- There is a general feeling that Alfresco is/was underfunded, under-resourced, and lacking in executive buy-in / mandate
- It appears that there is no executive support or commitment to mandating Information Management practices using Alfresco as a standard tool set to implement
- There was/is an element of Alfresco (or any ECM platform) being a magic bullet, rather than a platform on which to build solutions
- It seems that all the Alfresco initiatives over the years have been done as individual projects, rather than under a program of managing information
- The consulting services engaged focused on the mechanical & “how to” aspects of Alfresco and related tools, without any of the advisory & “what should we do, why we should do it” services
At this point it’s my opinion that the problems are cultural and environmental. If the culture and environment change Alfresco will succeed, providing the right resources are engaged in the right way. If the culture and environment don’t change Alfresco will fail, as will any other platform brought in.
If I were to start an enterprise software company today, I’d give the licenses away. No, I am not thinking about open source at all. I’m thinking about services, non-core functionality, and integration. I’ll stick to Enterprise Content Management software, but the principles are applicable to any enterprise grade platforms or suites (we can debate what “enterprise” means until the cows come home to roost, but not here or now).
Let’s face it; you can go and pick almost any large ECM suite and the core functionality is going to be pretty much the same across all of them. For the sake of this discussion, let’s define core functionality as:
- Check in / check out
- Basic search
- Basic workflow
- Some sort of UI (usually pretty crappy)
There is no substantive value differentiator to be had in choosing one over another. In fact, if any one of those items were missing, I doubt the software in question would even qualify as an ECM tool. I also think that in the very near future, file synching and sharing (e.g.: EMC’s Syncplicity and OpenText’s Tempo Box) could become core functionality (if it were my company it would be).
So, I’m going to give you the basics for free and I’m not even going to charge you for training and maintenance. I will charge you for implementation (if it’s on premises or on hosted infrastructure) and support, though. Why would I be so generous? Because I am really friggin’ smart. I want your organization to deploy, use, scale, and extend my software. I want you to realize that what really sets my software apart from the competition is the people I’ve got advising you, architecting your solutions, and deploying to your people.
What enterprise is going to live with just core functionality beyond a proof of concept phase, if that long? Even if they do, how long until they figure out that they’ll get way further if they hook up content services (yes, I said services) to other enterprise or line of business systems.
Don’t get caught up in the whole “if it’s free there’s no value” thing; it’s bogus. You need to understand the difference between cost (what you pay) and value (what you get). Besides, I already told you it’s not free, sort of. You’re going to have to implement the software. I or a partner can do it for you, and you’ll get billed. You can have your internal folks do it, and you’ll get billed to get them trained. It comes down to paying for the knowledge and expertise, not for the tool.
The value proposition for core content services (or content as a service if you prefer) is in pushing the content to other systems (processes+people+tools), and in being the core repository for content across the organization. Once your content is in the repository and being managed with the basics, only then am I going to start charging you for the add-ons. Add-ons are not by any means trivial, but they are not core for all organizations. For example, Digital Asset Management (DAM) – not everyone needs it, but to those that do it’s critical. And I am going to charge you for it (license and services). Hey, you want to use someone else’s DAM solution because it’s more suitable for your organization? Cool, but I am going to charge you for the integration. Same goes for web content management, ediscovery, records management, migration tools, large file transfers, etc. Integration to desktop tools, other enterprise systems, line of business systems, and cloud services? Damn right I’m gonna charge you.
“But what happens when partners do the initial implementation? You won’t make any money.” Truthfully, I don’t care. What I do care about is being at least as diligent about selecting partners as you are about selecting technology and service providers; I want partners that are every bit as invested in your success as I am. I want you, me, and the partners to be a triumvirate. If I really want a shot at success, I have to make sure that you succeed, regardless if you engage me directly or not. The only way I am going to do that is to support my partners as much as I support you, and to be there when their skills have gaps.
“But they’re a partner, how can they have skills gaps?” Well, because they’re partners and not my staff. Partners are never going to be as close to the product as those who build the product; it’s a fact. Besides, they’re out in the field implementing stuff and gathering feedback. That’s what I want them to do. And if I’ve set my partner model up properly partners are integrated into my processes and supported. My partners are also a revenue stream.
I don’t want any schmoe that’s done one implementation and read some stuff to be running amok out there. I want partners that can do as good a job, maybe even better, than my own staff can. I am going to spend time and money making sure partners are up to the task, and for that partners are going to pay me. If you want to work with the schmoe, that’s on you. Don’t come crying to me when it all goes wrong. Do come to me to help you fix it. I promise not to say “I told you so”. As long as there’s long-term success, I’m not too concerned about short-term faux-pas.
I don’t own or run a software company, and I’m not about to start one up; I’m an analyst/consultant with Digital Clarity Group. We help organizations get stuff done, including selecting technology and service providers. I hope that I’ve made you think about a few key things as you ponder your technology and vendor choices:
- Cost does not determine value – lots of open source and low cost tools are every bit as good as stuff you’d pay a fortune for;
- Regardless of cost, knowledge is far more valuable than tools;
- Clients, service providers, and vendors must, must, must be in a symbiotic relationship to truly succeed.
And if you happen to be looking for some guidance on selecting technology or service providers, reach out; we’re happy to chat. You should also check out our European and North American service providers guides (note that they are specific to the Customer Experience market).