Given the pace of today’s technology it’s never been easier to access business software that helps you to express the individuality of your business. It doesn’t require a degree in computer science; a geekish obsession with erp software systems or an army of consultants. When you cut through all the smoke and mirrors surrounding technology you arrive at a very simple truth, a truth that you already apply to the rest of your business.

If you find yourself terrified by business management software; overwhelmed by the seeming morass of systems and hardware required to run your business and appalled by the associated cost, it’s most likely not your fault, nor are you alone. Supporting all the complex infrastructure your business needs is a major accomplishment in itself.

But to achieve the lean business system, empowered, but not obscured by technology, we must first dispel the myths that surround business software. We must reclaim the business from the techno-babbling software vendors by looking at what lies beneath their smoke and mirrors.

If the current economic situation tells us anything, it’s that we don’t save money by going shopping. Families feeling the pinch of the credit crunch have pared back their spending to bare essentials, that is, identifying needs from the wants generated by advertising campaigns. Despite every point of sale on the high street screaming “Christmas discount!”, retailers still report slow sales. The reason is simple, shoppers aren’t looking for ways to spend money, they’re looking for the items on their shopping list.

Marketing serves a range of purposes from identification of need through to the creation of want. Emotionally it can be hard to discriminate between need and want, but as shoppers are showing, economic adversity makes the division far easier. Business software vendors, like retailers, upsell by blurring the lines between need and want.

The flagship strategy of the business software vendor’s marketing department is to redefine business management software as “solutions”. To illustrate how ludicrous this is, imagine your grocer selling a “grocery solution”. Would you allow the retailer to judge what was best for you and your family? Would you pay a premium to have the grocer train your family in the best way to cook the exotic ingredients? Would you gladly welcome the additional premium garbage collection service every week, to empty your fridge of rotting perishables? Worst of all, what would you think if your grocer told you he could only remove items from the grocery solution, as part of a premium customisation service?

It’s an absurd idea, yet this is how a software solution works. When you buy a business solution, you’re buying a generic system that suits no-one perfectly, you might not need all the features, but if you’re going to get value out of that system, you better buy the training! Of course you don’t have to use the whole system, just like you don’t have to eat all the food in your fridge, but you’ve still paid for it and you’re still going to have to maintain the whole business solution whether you use it or not. You could customise the solution to remove these items, but then you’ll pay for the customisation not to mention a maintenance premium.

No one would buy a generic grocery solution, even if it did seem like a bargain, because however much you hate grocery shopping, the cost of relinquishing control of the weekly shop to the grocer would be a whole lot worse, not to mention inappropriate. This sleight of hand transformation of business management software into business solutions has achieved with seven figure sums, what no grocer would dare try with three figures.

Like people with fridges overladen with high-margin confectionery, businesses with business software brimming with enticing features quickly get out of shape. Before long, no-one can imagine living without the features and what’s more, ill-disciplined processes lead to even greater appetite for new business software “confectionery”. Is it any wonder then that you find yourself struggling to keep business processes lean and technology costs down in the face of ubiquitous solutions rhetoric?

The business solution myth feeds on the fear that tells us technology gives competitive advantage and more technology gives more advantage. By generalising business process, the fear becomes self-perpetuating, the more like your competitors you become, the more you are required to upgrade and upscale your technology to out-perform them. Meanwhile, the business solutions vendors become more ubiquitous selling ever more licenses.

In every area of business, we strive for competitive advantage through differentiation, yet business solutions vendors are poorly equipped to serve this need, their highly lucrative licenses mean they positively penalise differentiation through high customisation and maintenance fees. Businesses are expected to compromise on differentiation, or ignore the large costs in light of the candy shop of features presented to them. This feature confectionery is the loss-leader of technology sales.

Differentiation is not impossible, nor is it the case that all software vendors base their business model around license sales. The recent abrupt about-turn in the economy has seen an upsurge in interest in open source. Open source vendors typically charge nominal license fess and in many cases no license fee at all. Their model tends to be more consultative, the open nature of their business management software means no single vendor has a monopoly on services which as a result are more competitively priced. Without recurring license costs, open source vendors make margin from consultative activities associated with differentiation, not from reselling generic systems.

Open source, is not for everyone, there are those who will be well served by the traditional solutions providers and there are those for whom the idea of stepping out of a bloody battle with highly similar competitors would involve far too much of a loss of face. The reality of course is that mature open source systems are a far newer concept than traditional solutions vendors. Stepping off the solutions conveyor belt shouldn’t be seen as a poor indictment on past judgement, but rather capitalising on modern technology trends to closer align with business goals.

Regardless of the business’ choice of vendor, software is not the solution, businesses need to leverage technology to empower business process, and that means not seeking solutions. To seek a solution is to walk into the confectionery store without a shopping list. To succeed, businesses must seek technology partners who value long-term relationships and will collaborate on finding the correct solution for the business.

Software is not the solution, there’s no quick fix, but that applies to your competitors too, like everything in business, if it’s easy it’s not a differentiator. Given the deep penetration that modern business software has on the enterprise, looking for a solution closes a vast array of competitive differentiation options that the business can ill-afford to lose. Software is not the solution, the solution is the problem.

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