Give someone a good enough recipe and the right tools and they can probably bake a cake. Just not necessarily one you'd want to eat.
That's the promise and the problem with Force.com, the application development system that Salesforce.com unveiled this week. It's designed to allow experienced programmers to create systems that would run on top of its popular customer relationship management (CRM) product, but it also includes a component library that can be used by even regular business people. A demo at its customer conference, for example, showed how the preconfigured components could create a Salesforce.com-style workflow for Apple's iPhone.
Force.com is far from the only player in this space, of course. LongJump, a soon-to-be released online marketplace from CRM firm Relationals, and Coghead, among others, are creating similar kinds of services. All promise a way for those without an IT department -- or one that's too busy to deal with departmental requests for less-than-mission-critical applications -- to do their own development work.
This is supposed to steamline some technology-related processes, but it's going to require we introduce a lot more.
There's some question as to whether the average head of HR, finance, marketing or operations will bother creating their own applications. Some might assume that's what IT departments are for. Others who are chomping at the bit and frustrated by technology staff sluggishness might give it a try, but the ease-of-use in many of these systems is still far from proven. And even if it's easy, that doesn't mean the necessary interoperability, security and other issues have been addressed. Even if you're savvy enough to work with these tools, you aren't necessarily trained in other IT best practices that surround traditional software development activities.
Maybe these applications are coming from CRM vendors because managing that data effectively is one of the big enterprise pain points. But it's unclear how well these custom application add-ons would tie into ERP systems, BI systems and other often segregated products for handling data. This is especially true if the sales and marketing departments, for example, are loyal Salesforce.com users but the HR and finance units are still stuck on Siebel. I'm sure Force.com and the other services will offer degrees of heterogeneity, but they'll almost certainly work best with their own business applications. That means if a number of executives create their own custom applications, migrating to an alternate platform could be that much more of a pain.
There's a lot more in this Pandora's box -- I haven't even touched on the asset management or compliance issues -- but suffice it to say that any large organization that allows use of these tools will have to buttress it with some oversight by the IT department, if not outright veto power. That may curtail their use completely, or it could create a culture within lines of businesses that have new appreciation and empathy for the kind of hoops IT departments have to jump through to get applications into production. You never know until you try, of course, but sometimes what you don't know can't hurt you.