The Culture of Complexity

SAP, my former employer, is holding court today with industry analysts and media about their vision for the future of enterprise software. While I continue to believe that SAP is incredibly well positioned going forward with the current competitive landscape, I do have questions about the forecasts and projections about customer adoption uptake.

For example, Shai says they will have 10,000 customers on BPP (the SOA platform) by the end of 2007… there are 400 customers on it today. Considering that the existing customer base is not beating down the doors to get the upgrade I just don’t see how you could possibly sell and install 1/3 of the entire customer base in a year.

But the point of this post really isn’t to pick apart Shai’s forecast, he’s a smart guy and has a lot of smart people working for him so if he says he is gonna deliver 9,600 customers in a year then I wait until this time next year to critique. What I do want to write about is something that has been bouncing around in my head for a long time now, The Culture of Complexity that permeates enterprise software and why my company, Teqlo, is going to ignore the enterprise market for the time being.

Shai says the next platform is process, a point I am hard pressed to disagree with but ideologically opposed to him on how to get there. The Internet originally accomplished something very meaningful, a standardization of communication protocols that enabled systems to communicate with one another. Later, the Web accomplished something less dramatic but equally important, the standardization of data protocols in the form of XML. By dumbing down data integration to text (greatly oversimplified I know) the web is able to seamlessly move data from one application to another without the need for a broker in between.

The generation that the application market is in right now began 5 years ago with the advent of SOAP and other application API standards, which led to the opportunity that Teqlo is taking advantage of, a standardization of application protocols and the holy grail of software – interoperability without penalty. This stuff really does work and will get better with age, and it either promises or threatens, depending on your vantage point, to reshape the industry as we know it.

The Culture of Complexity is an anecdotal set of observations I have made over the years about how big enterprise software vendors have increasingly been unable to “do anything simple”. It’s not that there are teams of seasoned developers sitting around suggesting ways to make things more complex, but there is a pervasive culture in these companies that values complexity over simplicity as proxy for “value creation”. The belief is that a complex technology stack represents a competitive barrier and the ability to lock in customers, and quite honestly it has worked as a strategy.

The irony in our current market is that the big SOA platforms end up driving not a technology shift that fuels a new wave of growth, but a business model shift as a result of the decoupling of a tightly integrated suite of applications into a loosely coupled repository of services. Customers will be able to substitute services and drive their own solutions offerings “at the edge” in a way that is reminiscent of, and I can’t believe I’m going to write this, best of breed.

Shai is absolutely correct to talk about business solutions being driven at the edge, but his exposed flank is the fact that IT is no longer going to be the sole provider of these within the enterprise. In fact, my bet is that IT becomes a utility provider responsible for infrastructure services while business units take responsibility for business solutions. In this scenario SAP and Oracle are ill-equiped to win on their terms because for their entire history they have been solving CIO and IT problems, not user problems.

If you need any further proof to see the Culture of Complexity in action, look no further than SAP’s own slide on product roadmap delivery for 2007. BTW, Google released their spreadsheet API today, how long before you see mashups entering the workplace that do things like expense management from calendar details, a solution you would have to buy from SAP/Microsoft (Duet) and implement providing you have all the pieces in place to do it, and if it were so easy why is SAP itself not running Duet internally (the answer is in the version requirements)?


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6 thoughts on The Culture of Complexity

  1. This is a huge problem; with all due respect for the size of the problem they’re trying to solve, the sheer scope of the *solution* is awe-inspiring. I continue to be a amazed that implementations like this are actually *profitable* for businesses (they must be, or SAP and others like it wouldn’t have any customers…).

    Clearly this is a market that is begging for a simplified solution to these problems, and there will be real money in it for the one that can deliver. Your Google example is a good bet.

    Amazingly enough, I just posted on a closely related topic yesterday:

  2. > I continue to be a amazed that implementations like this are actually profitable for businesses (they must be, or SAP and others like it wouldn’t have any customers…).

    Businesses only need to *believe* them to be profitable for SAP to have customers. And I continue to be amazed that they do …

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  4. You have hit the right point here. I do agree with your basic question on complexity. However, I also feel that some of it is to do with the IT department that comes between enterprise software vendor and the actual users. Some of the complexities are etched in the minds of IT people that they are hard wired to think in one way only. More over, complexities of enterprise software is their raison d’etre.

    In my previous company we kept saying that we’ll simplify the interaction and help users, but we could never accomplish that, SCs were pulling us into adding complexity giving customer gripe as the reason, but when we looked at it, customer kept giving examples of established enterprise software techniques, they were not taking our suggestions of alternative ways of solving the problem. (Anyway, why we did not succeed had lot of other things in it, but main thing was we missed this fact that there is a middle man, whom we had ignored).

    I guess it is the same thing with the SAP, SAP consultants were huge because the system was complex, it is not that it needed to be complex on the technical side, but it was. So, those high earning consultants remained loyal and kept pushing SAP where ever they went, because that was their domain and helping SAP was helping themselves.

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