Having developed software for more that 20 years, my answer to the first part of the question “to build or to buy” is simple. No matter how gifted your internal IT group is, don’t ever build internally. We have watched Real Estate companies fritter away tens of millions of dollars on internal IT projects only to give up in frustration. I’ll talk a bit more on this in a moment.
The question is not whether to build or buy, but rather what to buy. We have seen a radical shift in the market in the last two years. I think it’s because the new generation of users have grown up with social media and mobile apps that are responsive and light and they will not use clunky software that takes time to figure out and use.
We had a fast lesson in this a couple of years ago when we noticed a decline in the usage of our software. My immediate reaction was to panic and try to figure out what new features and functionality we needed to build into the software. Our CTO intervened. He said, “before we do anything, let’s get a group of our customers into a room to figure out what was going on.” I said, “are you nuts? – that’s how a revolution starts.” I was very skeptical about the merit of his idea, but but we went ahead with the workshops and what we learned in those sessions did revolutionize the company.
We discovered that simplicity and ease of use trump everything. Rather than build more functionality – we stripped out forms, data fields and capability. We launched a new lean version of the application and usage shot back up. Not at all what I would have expected and a crucial lesson for us to take forward.
Let’s go back to why companies try to build a solution internally. One of the main goals is to create a fully integrated platform that drives the company’s workflows horizontally and vertically across the organization to efficiently get the right information to the right person at the right time. While the vision is bang on, internal IT Teams fail because theory lack the experience, skills and gearing of a company dedicated to developing software products. This is in addition to fulfilling their existing mandate to support, manage and maintain the existing IT infrastructure.
So what is the solution? Over the last two years, we have discovered three laws that we think govern whether a software platform you implement in your organization in the next five years will be successful. These are that the platform must be
1. LEAN: meaning the work flow in the software is sensible, the platform is mobile, and the interface is intuitive and easy to learn and adopt.
2. CONNECTED: No more Point Solutions! – Data has become too valuable to be silioed. In our case we have developed a horizontally integrated set of Modules that manage Environmental Data, Occupational Health and Safety, Insurance, Sustainability, Energy and Capital Projects. The modules share data, centralize information and are easy to learn because like Microsoft Office when you know Word, you have an understanding of the basics of Excel and PowerPoint.
3. RELEVANT: You create relevance through vertical integration. That means that data collected in the field by staff or sensors get summarized, flagged and contextualized as it moves up the organization so Managers can track Activities, Directors can use the data to create Insights and the C-Level have the information they need to create a data driven Strategy.
I have strong views about the folly of a strategy of either internal development or best of breed point solutions because neither addresses the shift information technology has quietly undergone in the last 36 months. There is a great quote from Warren Buffet where he says, “There seems to be some perverse human characteristic that likes to make easy things difficult.” If you keep it easy and select software that is Lean, Connected and Relevant, you will be successful over the next five or so years.