Shelfware can make a mountain of waste

Shelfware – not to be confused with off-the-shelf - is the term given to applications that sit on a shelf collecting dust somewhere in the IT shop.

While everyone admits there is plenty of it, very few are willing to talk about it.

Naturally the vendors' lips are sealed as it's not good for prospective sales and IT managers fear it will reflect on their competency.

Nor is the business going to talk as the objective here is to keep the presence of such shelfware below the radar.

Ask anyone why shelfware exists in the IT world and there is plenty of finger pointing.

The business blames the technology, the vendor blames the implementation partner, and the implementation partner blames the customer.

One point they all agree on is that shelfware is rarely caused by the technology itself.

But how much shelfware really exists in the Australian enterprise? Heaps, according to one IT manager, who says he is drowning in the stuff and unable to get rid of it after repeated attempts to offload his gear on e-Bay.

But ask any IT exec and they'll agree there are mountains of shelfware out there collecting dust in Australian enterprises, particularly when it comes to networking gear.

It seems shelfware is a part of the IT landscape whether it has been discarded, never used or overtaken by demand, IT managers claim it is a workplace fixture.

Telstra's consumer and marketing campaign manager, Ian Roberts, says he is more than familiar with shelfware and projects that go off the rails.

Having worked in Telstra for more than two years and as former manager of development and operations at Australia Post, Roberts has worked with many technologies including analytics, call centre, campaign management, middleware and Internet software.

He agrees there is plenty of shelfware and lazy [not working] kits filling IT shops in Australia.

So how do you stem the growth of such shelfware?

When tackling a project, Roberts said, it is a good idea to stay flexible but firm to avoid the shelfware dilemma.

"Too often projects are rigid during the implementation and rollout phase which will affect the usability and suitability of the application," he said.

"You have to list to what the business is telling you during the project; be open and flexible to ensure you are delivering what the business needs.

"At the same time, not too flexible or you won't get anything done."

Despite boasting 700 completed installations in Australia, document management company Hummingbird says some projects do remain on the shelf.

Even with a client list that includes the likes of BHP Coal, Integral Energy, and Baker McKenzie, the company's managing director Tony Hughes, said that at least 20 percent of their implementations, all of which are executed through partners, are not considered successful.

However, this is better than the industry standard of 40 to 50 percent.

In a study on IT customer satisfaction levels, analyst, author and former professor of computer science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Dr Michael Hammer, of Hammer and Company, found 40 percent were unhappy, 40 percent happy, and the remaining 10 percent ambivalent.

Shelfware is deemed to soak up a staggering 20 percent of all IT expenditure.

Even Gartner estimates half of all IT projects fail to deliver expected benefits.

Hughes said the best way to avoid shelfware is by making sure users have a strong voice in the selection and deployment process.

"Unless the users embrace the technology rather than having it pushed on them, there will never be an acceptable ROI," he said.

Hughes said it's also important to avoid an adversarial evaluation process when selecting technology.

The wrong technology buy means more wasted shelfware.

"The entire tendering process is geared incorrectly; it is based on functionality and features rather than solving business problems.

"Vendors know that if they don’t tick all the right functional boxes [on tender documents], they will be eliminated from the shortlist," he said.

"This forces vendors to stretch the truth about the functionality of their software, and winds up with the client not really getting what it wants.

The entire process often comes down to who can sell the best rather than which solution is best for the job."

Make the right technology buy

The best way to avoid shelfware is to make the right pre-purchasing decisions and ensure there's enough scalability in the technology to fit the future plans of the enterprise.

The Commonwealth Bank's IT projects manager, Howard Hill-Esbrand, said the solution bought today might be fine, but what about the future?

"You need to ensure the solution you select is open and flexible to move with your business and if you do customize, don't over do it," he said.

"You may customize yourself into a corner if you move too far away from the standard solution. This could leave you with no upgrade or support path from the vendor, resulting in outdated and underperforming software."

With 11 years IT experience, including a stint at Telstra and three years in the US, Hill-Esbrand has worked with a broad range of technology including Internet content management, middleware, Web delivery and CRM.

Not surprisingly, he has seen a few failed 'proof of concepts' in his day.

Hill-Esbrand said a proof of concept is an excellent way to identify what the application is capable of, how well it is likely to work and the status of the team's skill set.

"Through this process you need to apply your best practices to shake out all the specifics. This is a recipe for success for the overall project and its long-term survival," he said.

"Don't try and deliver all features at once. For successful projects we use a methodology called time boxing. We have a specific timeframe and prioritize the delivery of features depending on the budget.

"This contains the project and ensures focus; it's a good way to get around overruns or scope creep.

"You can’t deliver everything that all the stakeholders want" because there are different agendas, politics and priorities, Hill-Esbrand said.

When sales fail

Another aspect of shelfware is the IT systems' graveyard, an area where IT departments house pre-loved equipment that once made their company tick.

As an IT manager, I can boast a graveyard the size of an executive office suite. Somehow this gear grows each year and I'm left asking myself what to do with the baggage?

In 2003 we completed a number of key infrastructure projects; we moved from an ISDN interstate network to an ADSL VPN; migrated to a new IVR system which allowed us to handle three times the calls in our busy periods. At the start of 2004 I decided to try and sell some of the redundant ISDN equipment which is still used in some major companies but my attempts were fruitless. When we originally purchased the ISDN modems, multiplexer (device which completes WAN authentication) and associated cabling etc, it cost in the region of $20,000. But getting rid of this stuff is tough, not even e-Bay worked. I decided to take the approach of selling the ISDN kit piece by piece on e-Bay rather than as a whole ISDN WAN package. The products were sold individually with a low start price, out of the 20 pieces of equipment we offered, only two items sold, and I only received two bids. I think this is proof of just how quickly technology moves on. Had this equipment been ADSL-related it would have gone in a flash.

Now on to the biggest sale: the IVR system. When we purchased this back in 2002 it cost us $40,000; the system allowed us to take 12 calls at a time. Since sales have recently gone through the roof we had to move to a system which could take nearly 40 calls at a time and could re-direct calls to an external company. I figured there wouldn't be any buyers on e-Bay so my first port of call was the original vendor. They weren't even remotely interested although they were specialists in this field, but the gear was outdated. Today, the server has become a footstool under my desk. When it comes to re-using software, I have found that Windows NT4 CDs are good for coffee place mats and data tape cases are good when arranging an assortment of screws. So the graveyard continues to grow and the dust gets thicker (even the cleaners have decided my kit isn't worth dusting).

– From an IT manager who spoke on condition of anonymity

Computerworld would love to hear how other readers are creatively re-using their shelfware? E-mail

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More about Australia PostBHP BillitonCommonwealth Bank of AustraliaGartnerHummingbirdIntegral EnergyMassachusetts Institute of TechnologyTelstra Corporation

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