The 85 percent solution

Is 85 percent enough? Oracle Corp. Chairman Larry Ellison thinks so. At last week's Oracle AppsWorld conference in Paris, he told the crowd his company's E-Business Suite "doesn't do everything our customers want. We have an 80 percent or 85 percent solution." Like any enterprise system, Oracle's can be customized to a fare-thee-well. But if you use it out of the box - as Ellison says General Electric is doing at 20 manufacturing plants - "an 85 percent solution in five months is better than a 100 percent solution in three years."

That's a pretty picture, isn't it? Bet your CEO will like it, too. And that could spell trouble. Because using enterprise software out of the box isn't really about giving up features. It's about giving up control of how your company does business.

Remember, an enterprise package isn't just an extra-large bundle of features and functionality. Inside the package, there's a model for how a company does business - that's what makes it enterprise software.

All the business processes that the enterprise package implements are built on top of that model so they'll work smoothly together. And that's great - if the business-process model inside the software exactly matches your business.

Which, of course, it never does.

And then you have a choice: You can change the software, or you can change your business processes to match the software.

We know what it costs to change the software. We've all seen the projects that dragged on for years, customizing enterprise packages from SAP AG and PeopleSoft Inc. and Baan Co. NV and Oracle Corp. Everyone underestimated how long customization would take, how hard it would be and how much work had to be done all over again with each new release of the enterprise package.

We also know about companies that didn't customize. Their enterprise projects went up in months instead of years. Their installations were fast and cheap. But there were costs that didn't show up in the project budget - the costs of endless changes and adjustments and unintended consequences from changing their business processes to match the way the software works.

That's the obvious trade-off with out-of-the-box enterprise software: quick and clean on the technical side, messy and disruptive on the business side.

But there's a more subtle trade-off, too: Getting a ready-to-use enterprise system means handing over the job of designing business processes to the software vendor.

That's a lot to trust Oracle or SAP or PeopleSoft for. Not just getting the code right, but also getting the whole business process right. And then keeping it right with each upgrade, as business and markets and customer expectations change.

And that's what Larry Ellison is really pitching. Not just an 85 percent solution, but 100 percent trust in the vendor's ability to deliver a business model that works - and keeps working, pretty much forever.

Is that a good idea? Maybe, maybe not. It's not your call. If ever there was a technology-related decision that has to be made by top management, the choice to outsource control of business processes has to be it.

But you can be sure of one thing: One of these days, your CEO will hear about this dandy idea for saving time and money by implementing an enterprise package without first customizing it.

IT's job then will be to explain what's at stake: not just features or convenience or a fat project for IT - but also who controls how you do business.

Maybe, like GE, your CEO will decide it's the right approach for certain operations. Maybe he'll conclude it's too much of a gamble.

Either way, make sure he's got the full picture - not just 85 percent of it.

Hayes, Computerworld's senior news columnist, has covered IT for more than 20 years. Contact him at frank_hayes@computerworld.com.

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