The Advantages of Being Too Big to Fail

The Wall Street Journal’s CIO Report tells us that SAP has finally accepted that their software has usability problems.  While it is laudable that they have finally realized the problem, and equally laudable that they have decided to fix the problem, or at least attempt to, the fact that they have taken so long is something that many IT professional should think about.

I have blogged before about the importance of considering usability in systems as something important.  Apple figured that out a long time ago, and they have become very successful.  Many other companies weren’t so concerned, and have faded away, or are in the process of doing so.  The advantage that SAP has is that they are literally too big to fail.  Their installed base is so large that they can afford to wait until major customers start deploying non-SAP software in their environment to fix a fundamental flaw in their products.

The question should be whether your company is too big to fail.  This question should be asked even if, especially if, your primary product is not software.  As I noted earlier, many corporate IT groups are primarily concerned with deploying a solution, not deploying a usable solution that the customers need.  What ends up happening is that IT fails to deliver additional value to the business.  Large numbers of users don’t adopt the solution and much of the purported advantage of the solution is never realized.  In addition, IT develops a bad reputation and future projects slow down or fail because of it.

In the 21st century, many employees have literally grown up with very usable technology (Apple, Facebook, Amazon, etc.).  They are very productive when using these technologies and expect the same usability at the office.  I don’t know how many times in the last few years I’ve heard someone say “I’d just like it to work as well as Amazon.”  When the tools IT delivers are not that usable, they will find other ways to succeed.  Typically, this is not a victory for either side.  The user solution may be faster for them, but probably not as fast as a well designed solution, and likely their failure to use the deployed solution means that other value propositions are not being realized (such as data mining opportunities and the like).

What is sad about this story isn’t so much that SAP is a bit slow in figuring things out, but rather what it means regarding the numerous companies that use their software.  How much inefficiency and waste exist in their customer’s organizations because the product is so hard to use?  How much money wasted on excessive training classes for new users, how many miniature IT projects exist to provide workarounds?  How many extra employees are required to manage the system vs. produce and sell product?  I wonder how many of those organizations are too big to fail.