Everyone can appreciate a bowl of authentic Italian Spaghetti Bolognese. But what happens when the sauce is replaced with crème brûlée? Or instead of a sprinkling of Parmesan and basil, you opt for a combination of Hundreds and Thousands and caramel drops? While any one of these ingredients on their own or in the right combination with others is entirely delightful, you don’t have to be a gourmand to know they’ll do nothing for this particular meal.
And so it is with disparate business systems. Individually, each one might be pretty good (like a caramel drop). But thrown together in unlikely combinations, almost certainly ‘not so much’.
The reason I’ve chosen Bolognese as the metaphorical dish with which to illustrate the point is quite simple. Spaghetti is routinely used by technologists as an example of what happens when you have a collection of disparate systems, even when those systems have a measure of integration applied to them.
And the thing with a spaghetti is that you never really know where one individual strand starts and ends, and which other strands it touches on as it snakes its way through the bowl. We’ll get to the problems this implies in a moment.
Why the noodles?
First, let’s consider why a great many of the companies we engage with for their ‘first time ERP’ find themselves in a spaghetti situation which would make Sergio Leone proud.
Generally, the reasons are both fairly simple, fairly sensible and fairly commonplace. And they can be summed up in one word: pragmatism.
You start with a simple accounting system. You use a bunch of spreadsheets and Word documents to keep tabs on things. It gets a bit hard to keep an eye on inventory, so in goes a ‘point solution’. As time goes by, the same thing happens, again and again, for supply chain management, purchasing, human resources, customer relationship management and more.
Each time, the practical answer to a pressing need is to go out and grab the apparently best system for the job, on the day.
Unfortunately, a practical response to an immediate problem has a major drawback. It tends to be a tactical, rather than strategic, response. It is aimed at alleviating short-term distress, which it may well do (and it may do so well, too).
Too many cooks…
However, the passage of time and the inevitable engagement with multiple vendors – there could be tens of them, or more – means soon enough, you’ve got too many cooks in the kitchen. Those cooks don’t talk to one another either, and if they do its more Gordon Ramsay than Ainsley Harriot.
What started out as a simple pasta dish, understood by everyone, winds up with confectionary in it. There’s no clear idea of what’s going on, or why. With so many different interested parties, when the inevitable complaints come in from those who sample the meal, instead of a ready solution, there’s finger-pointing (and more Gordon Ramsay).
And this is the heart of the problem with disparate systems. They don’t work together easily or even at all. They require excessive customisation and integration, which is not only costly and time-consuming, but can also impact your ability to upgrade one or another component – because if you interfere with one strand of the spaghetti, there’s no knowing how it might impact on another.
The tipping point
Disparate systems typically serve a purpose up to a point. That point generally comes when, to use a well-worn idiom, the wheels start falling off. There are easy clues to identify this point: excessive time is required for data entry or transfer from one system to another. There is no single source of customer information and getting the required information (particularly cross-functional data) is difficult, time-consuming or seemingly impossible. Did I say cross-functional? When visibility across all parts of the business is a challenge, and it’s hard to just figure out what’s going on…then disparate systems have worn out their welcome.
Instead of helping your business, in other words, they are hindering it. And it is at that point that you need to strongly consider investing in a single, integrated and company-wide enterprise resource planning solution.
You’re moving on. From the spaghetti to something considerably more refined, more sophisticated, more Cordon Bleu.