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Integration issue #5 - vendor lock-in: Tips to unlock your full integrations potential!

The fifth integration issue we share our thoughts and learnings about, is vendor lock-in. Staying with a vendor can be the best thing to do, refer to our previous blog about Exonet. However this doesn't always apply, especially if the sole reason for staying or even procuring more software from that vendor is for 'better integrations'. Meanwhile, ending up with a product that doesn't meet requirements. Keep reading for how to avoid this scenario.

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We all love a good story. Especially one that originates close to home. So here goes: Leaseplan.

Initially, the Australian SAP ERP rollout went smoothly for them in 2016. So much so, that they decided this ERP system, would be the centrepiece of the IT transformation in 32 countries. After that, everything basically went wrong. A few years later the transformation was abandoned, and eye-watering amounts of money had to be written off.

The upshot was, that this platform was not able to be flexible enough to accomodate the needs of Leaseplan, today. So Leaseplan decided to assimilate their own ERP system, by using third party modules that were fit-for-purpose: they adopted a Best of Breed approach. And they are better off for it.

Issue #5

This story clearly outlines the issue we would like to discuss with you, including some tips on how to avoid it: vendor lock-in.

Another story from the Netherlands, our original home

Before we dive into this topic any deeper, we have another story to share from one of our current clients. They are a Foundation, and therefore often short on time and money for other things than their core service offering. They needed a new HR system. For them, the quickest way to find a solution was to talk to their current HR system vendor, about options as well as their requirements.

It would be no surprise the vendor recommended their newest product as the best fit for the Foundation. Why? It would integrate so nicely to everything they already had up and running. Unfortunately, by the time the Foundation spent their allocated budget of EUR 150,000, the system turned out to be unfit for purpose. Even though it would have taken some time and money at the outset, a proper market scan based on requirements would have made a big difference and saving in the long run.

BC

Software development and integrations over time Back in the day, BC (before cloud), Best of Suite was a much more viable approach than it is today. On premise and traditionally, other integration methods are used, with severe limitations. Therefore, sometimes, a Best of Breed approach was considered a risky move. Without APIs or equivalent facilities, getting quality data out of an application adequately, can be hard.

As you might guess, one of the reasons for our existence and service offering is that APIs have become commonplace. SaaS applications are architected very differently to their old on-premise siblings. The current dominance of SaaS applications with APIs, makes a Best of Suite approach sound very outdated. It has been a true step-change for integration technology.

But, other than us and other IT savants, who would know? If you are running your Foundation, going about your business, this is not a level of detail around APIs and integration technology that you would be familiar with. And, therefore, the vendor-lock in effect is real. To the point that we’d argue that some software vendors use it as a misplaced sales strategy. Sometimes it gets worse than that, information is obfuscated from the customer, in hopes they won’t ask for other integration options such as whether the application has an open API.

And the awful thing is, the customer is missing out because of it. The best value for money is obtained via a Best of Breed approach in most cases. Obviously, via Best of Breed approach you will end up with the application that best meets your requirements, by definition. In the end, the application meeting your requirements is likely the most important determinant for success, supported by the invisible power of integrations to make the data in your Best of Breed winner application even richer.

Integration technology can easily keep up with best of breed, nowadays.

> Please read that again.

It would be such a shame if you have to make do with a sub-optimal product, just because you believed a random story that it would integrate better, and therefore was the better choice.

Knowledge is power

So how to best combat vendor-lock in and get your value for money, you ask?

1. Look before you leap

Start with the required functionality of the application. Be quite detailed in this assessment and involve end-users and ultimate beneficiary stakeholders, not just executives or sponsors. Although they matter too, of course! Start with the end in mind, but keep it open. Avoid any strong bias or nudges at this stage to consider a specific vendor.

2. Have a chat!

First of all, having a conversation with your current vendors is a very legitimate step in your research phase for any change to your IT environment. As long as it is not the only step, and one where you believe everything they tell you with no questions asked. Ask them about their application’s functionality, and see if that matches what you need. Requirements are always the first consideration.

What to ask regarding integrations specifically One of the exam questions to your current vendor/s should be: how can we integrate your application with other applications? And don’t take ‘no’ for an answer. A self-respecting modern software application should have an API or equivalent option. It is a valid choice for a software developer to not publish API information online, and keep the API closed.

There are two genuine schools of thought where some software developers believe the best thing to do is to invite as many others in via their open API to build extensions of their product, and others prefer to only work with selected (often fee paying) partners or opt to do everything themselves. However, that does not mean that there are no integration options. There almost always are, they might just not tell you. Keep asking questions.

3. Extra attention, please!

Be especially vigilant if you are dealing with companies that acquire other software products, rename them, and subsequently say they are integrating very well together. This may be true, but more often it is not.

Obviously, a rebranding strategy does not change any application’s underlying architecture one bit. And this is usually where an integration challenge starts. From there, it really depends whether the software vendor in question dedicates the appropriate amount of resources to develop, maintain and support the integration. Almost anyone can build a minimum-viable-product type integration: this is not what you are looking for, though. Keep asking questions about what the integration can do in detail, for your custom implementation/fields and critical data attributes, and automations required.

Keep in mind that for a (large) software company to grow, often the quickest or only way is to acquire other, often adjacent applications and on-sell them to their clients. There is a very clear driver here to sell you stuff and create value for shareholders.

4. Chat to others

Once you’ve spoken with your current vendors, open up. Scan the market. Ask for suggestions internally, but also in your external network and perhaps ask friendly competitors what they use. Google, it can’t hurt. If you have sufficient cash, ask a reputable independent consultant (in the sense that they do not work with commissions or the like), to recommend a shortlist of which applications are a great fit for your requirements.

Ask these other software vendors the same list of questions as above, about functionality first and integration options second - this ensures you can compare your options. We recommend to consider at least three alternative applications alongside the suggestion offered by your current vendor/s.

5. Give the integrations specialist a seat at the table

Next, talk to someone who does integrations for a living. This should not cost you a lot of money, if any. We offer free consultations to help companies considering IT change various integration options, for example. Of course we hope one day you’ll join us as a client, but there are no strings attached to the conversation/s. If you join as a client, we want that to be purely driven by the value we can bring, not as a tit-for-tat. This is an important aspect to look for when consulting with an integrations specialist.

Again, if you have a good amount of money available, consider hiring an integrations consultant that is not connected to any integrations platform or technology for advice.

“You won’t see it, until you realise it”

Words made famous by our most famous soccer player ever, Johan Cruyff. In more popular speak, we can also refer to Captain Hindsight (not to be confused with Cruyff, of course).

It is very hard to hover above all the information you receive from your software vendor/s and other parties, and to separate the wheat from the chaff in terms of what is true and most beneficial to you. Sometimes you will venture down the wrong path. However, remember, in all project management methods there are stages where you should consider stopping the project. As painful as it is, when done at the right time it can save you so much money and frustration down the track.

Aim to fail fast. A lesson our Foundation client has learned the hard way.

Main takeaway

As a final thought and if you take away anything from this blog: Best of Breed is a very viable and arguably the best choice nowadays. There are plenty of integration options for you to choose from, in spite of what some vendors will tell you. Make your end-user experience your obsession, and go from there.

Photo by marcos mayer on Unsplash

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