Guess what? Even without a single developer on staff, your business is a software business. And before you disagree, think about the absolutely critical role it plays in how your people connect, collaborate, and create. So even if you're not worried about finally figuring out what agile means or exactly what the heck Kubernetes does, you're increasingly reliant on the power of software. And it's just not the office–software rules the world.
If you own or operate a business, that means good and bad news. The good news is that, for nearly any task, software makers have given us practically thousands of options. The bad news is that we now have to choose between these thousands of of options. This leaves decision-makers in a tight spot. Do you let teams choose their own tools based on what they think works best? Or do you clamp down and choose a single, unified platform that provides "one-speed" of integrated capabilities?
Welcome to the Big Time: Enterprise-Grade Decision-Making
This is why making enterprise-wide technology decisions can be complicated. There are some high-level benefits to either path: a single unified platform or diverse point solutions.
- A unified platform increases your control while decreasing risk and limiting the numbers of checks you have to write to vendors. But it might also make modernization slower and make for unhappier users. It also gives you room to grow as you modernize (or digitize) more workloads.
- Letting teams decide increases freedom and allows your organization to adopt new tools more quickly, but it may introduce unnecessary risk to your business. It's also the easiest way to match the task to the tool carefully.
So, what's a decision-maker to do? The answer is simple, but probably not 100% satisfactory: it depends.
The right and smartest choice must be driven by the unique outcomes you're looking to achieve and the obstacles you face getting there. In this piece, we'll take a look at some of your most critical workloads and identify specific pros and cons.
Do you assemble a set of point solutions that are individually awesome but not necessarily designed to work together right out of the box? Lots of options, different flavors, different strengths.
OR do you take advantage of a new kind of application that lets you build a platform yourself, assembling different functions and features into a single integrated solution? Multiple low or no code varieties allow you to translate business outcome goals into software.
How Are You Managing Data - Big, Medium, or Otherwise?
Everybody wants to talk about data. And, not surprisingly, lots of people want to sell you solutions. So, do you need to embrace 'big data' applications or stick with a medium-sized data solution that's serving you now? Whether you're moving from popular spreadsheet software to something more sophisticated or looking to switch your online database provider, the decision must be driven by facts on the ground.
Understanding data flow
The first step in making this decision is to understand precisely how data flows across the organization. It's often a critical link between the various functions that serve your customers.
- Customer records – record gets written by one function, shared with many others. Mostly internal.
- Sales orders – records are touched by multiple users across functions, both internally and externally
- Financial information – is created through collaboration, then used as inputs to other systems, all with heavy compliance controls
And, if you're doing calculations on the data at any point, from forecasting to advanced reporting, it's often accessed by some of your most high profile (and top dollar) positions in finance and beyond. And it's very likely one of these people, maybe Frank or Francine from accounting, wants something more sophisticated.
Secondly, the kind of data being processed really matters. Are you working constrained by compliance regulations and controls? If you're using Excel to manage employee schedules, that's one thing. But if you're tracking sensitive data from financial to health-related information, privacy concerns get much more significant.
So how do you decide between a standalone spreadsheet application and an integrated "enterprise" suite that enables you to do more advanced analytics reporting?
Point Solution Pro/Con
Chances are you're probably using a point solution—maybe more than one. The benefit is that your team already knows the tool well, so you won't lose time to training. And it's also probable that your team can do things with a single point solution that might not be possible with a bigger platform. Sometimes it's big issues like data formatting. Sometimes it's "last inch" functionality, like a specific calculation or report you can't do with a big platform. You're also only paying for the software you need.
But point solutions might be harder to scale. While Frank or Francine might be wizards with the spreadsheet, what happens if they leave the job? That means a lot of valuable information trapped inside a single application. Frank and Francine love it—it's job security—but it's not always the most dependable strategy. And if you do need to move data in and out of the application, you're again limited by the tool.
Platform – Pro/Con
Obviously, with data, interoperability is critical. Most of the hard work of making big data work is data hygiene. While hygiene might seem like a weird term to use about data, that's precisely what it is cleaning, sorting, sifting, and preparing data so that it can be used by another application.
- Data is collected
- Data gets cleaned
- Data gets sorted
- Data becomes input to tools
A platform approach should help you automatically move data from one workflow to the other; no scrubbing required. A big platform is also probably built for scale – more users, on more devices, working simultaneously. This is important if you've ever struggled with version control.
If you're worried about security or audit controls, most big platforms are built for this. You can instantly see who has access to data, who uses it, and where it goes. No chance of Frank or Francine losing the spreadsheet, and in most cases, these platforms do a better job securing data in the cloud than you can probably do on your own. And, as new analytics tools become mainstream, they'll be added to your platform, and you don't have to run out and buy more tools.
The downside to a platform is that if new ideas do emerge, you have to wait for the vendor to add them. And as the platform gets upgraded, you're locked into the new features and functions. You will also have to spend time teaching Frank or Francine how to use software with which they might not be familiar. Also, if you need to share data with users outside of a particular team, you're limited by the formats made available by your vendor.
If you manage multiple teams handling multiple tasks, workflow and project management are essential. This is how you know how quickly things are moving, who is responsible for specific tasks, and when things will be finished. Rather than spending your time hunting down slackers or demanding answers, an excellent project management tool will give you an easy, unified view of where (or who) the obstacles are. They typically offer reporting on deadlines, resources, statuses, and hand offs. Combined with a good project manager, they can be the difference between a good business and a great business.
But since workflows (and their projects) often stretch across multiple teams or business units, your workflow and project management teams need to be able to do the same. And while different groups might succeed with their own tools, they can run into trouble when they try to collaborate or communicate.
You can either find ways to translate or combine systems. Like with data, the scope and scale of project workflows is key to choosing a technology solution. It's also critical to figure out if and when the workflow or project interfaces with systems from partners outside the company, whether suppliers or customers.
The problem with workflow management and task management is that it involves multiple phases. Not just information on a project, but messaging between team members, document management, and everything else.
Point Solution Pro/Con
The big benefit to standalone workflow/project management software tools is their specificity.
Specialized fields often yield specified tools, so If you work in a specialized field like manufacturing, the chances are good that you can find a purpose-built solution designed precisely for the needs of manufacturers.
- Familiarity with workflows
- Integrates best practice checkpoints and hand-offs
- Understands most popular reporting needs
And your teams are probably already familiar with the tools, so they're proficient. They might love it or hate it, but it's probably getting the job done. And even if you can't find a solution designed specifically for a maker of airplane bathroom lighting systems, you might be able to get pretty close.
But the same point solution might not play well with other systems. If you're looking to integrate with other critical task management or project management systems inside your business, that connectivity will cost you. And if these integrations break, which they often do, you might have to start all over again.
That doesn't mean the code itself goes bad, but a version change on either side can suddenly cause your life to get miserable fast. And instead of having one person to scream at, it's potentially three!
Unified Platform Pro/Con
The big benefit of the platform is again, integration. You can quickly tie workflows and project management to other critical systems of record. This could be inventory, human resources, or finance. That way you know exactly what somebody is doing, how their time should be billed, and maybe even if they're working the 40 hours, they've promised you. And your dashboards will get bigger and more comprehensive, giving you a single lens that covers a broader range of peoples, objects, and events. This also means integrated reporting, which can then be easily shared across other users of the systems.
A big platform will typically bring new features to you faster then you might acquire/build them yourselves.
Need to connect a project workflow to a brand-new digital channel?
Want to implement a new security protocol or control?
Need to access new data tools?
And remember, building something new is hard. But integrating it with other tools is even more challenging. And providing enterprise-grade resilience is a bigger task all together. And, just like with data, a platform, especially one designed in the cloud, will keep your data safer and more secure.
This is important for redundancy and recovery from a disaster or just a really silly mistake in the data center involving a careless employee and a large cup of coffee.
Ultimately, tighter integration will save you time since team members don't have to switch between tools furiously. And there are fewer opportunities for vital information to fall through the cracks.
We already talked about how we manage projects, but what about the tools used to manage people and teams?
- How can you plan to ensure you have enough people—and the right people—to manage upcoming work?
- How can you achieve peak efficiency where the work gets done quickly without burning people out while turning them into tired, grumbling robots?
- Who is working where and why?
- Who is off next week, and when do they get back?
This is why you need workforce management software.
But we also know your people aren't just pieces in a machine. HR management tools help track everything from essential benefits details to promotions and pay raises. It also helps onboard new employees and "offboard" people who are leaving the company.
They also ensure that people get paid, which is obviously critical to retaining your workforce (and avoiding lawsuits). Small and growing businesses are often likely to buy the bare minimum here – maybe an automated payroll system. But as the company grows, leaders will find they can't get everything accomplished with these limited tools. That's when they decide between either more point solutions or a move to a large platform.
Point Solutions Pro/Con
We're back to some of the same issues we already discussed. A lot of your choices here, around either workforce management or HR software, might be driven by size. If you run a small business with a few team members, you might not need a large platform. You can even use automated payroll and track everything else manually with other tools.
This is also true if you only manage a single location and run a business that's not particularly seasonal. This typically means you don't need advanced features like forecasting or direct hiring interfaces. And, back to our friends Frank and Francine in accounting, it's probably a tool they already know well, and they can be very productive with it.
The downside of point solutions here is probably also about growth.
- Single site team tools don’t scale well
- Smaller tools might not have resources like LMS
- Integration between “people tools” lacking
The same tools that manage one site with five employees will be less useful when you're managing multiple employees across multiple branches. And if you want to do things like formalizing training with a learning management system (LMS), you'll have to track progress manually between the workforce management tools and your other related HR systems. These tools are generally (but not always) less powerful on the employee side.
Platform Pros and Cons
This means less employee self-service. So, signing up for benefits, scheduling time-off, and updating personal information must be managed manually across point solutions. Larger, more sophisticated "human capital" platforms let employees do this directly.
This means no more time spent answering questions about the dental plan or trying to balance summer vacation schedules. Tighter integration between HR and payroll will also enable you to build controls that are not only common sense but required in many security audits. If Frank gets fired, he shouldn't get paid. And he shouldn't have access to the same files and resources while employed. An integrated platform lets you automate this. Otherwise, you just have to hope everybody gets the email.
The downside of platforms is that you're often buying more functionality than you need. And, as your business grows (or shrinks), you have less flexibility once you've paid the bill for the term of the license. This is true with point solutions, but you have a little more control. And, as with everything else, you'll have to train users and migrate information from one tool to another.
So, which way will you go?
Now that we've reviewed some of the main areas of software functionality that are the foundations of your "digital business," we have to look at some of your upgrade options and how best to make the decision.
Assess your Culture
We talked earlier about low/no-code applications that let you create your own platform that's customized to business obstacles and outcomes. Are these a good fit? While they don't require formal software development teams, they still depend heavily on work culture.
Short version: do you have people with the time, talent, and passion to pull something like this off? They don't have to be a coder, but they do have to understand all the workflows and resource intricacies discussed above. And they have to be able to work with other team members to help turn these details into a software platform.
- Pro: gets people involved in building the tools they use. This should (ideally!) mean higher adoption and acceptance and reduce the need for extensive training.
- Con: it also puts you on the hook for necessary updates. You can always contract with software developers to do the work, but that sort of defeats the purpose of building it yourself in the first place.
This is a question about culture and talent. Can you identify leaders who have the time and ability to take it on? Do they share your vision of what needs to change and what needs to be done?
If you don't, you might want to consider point solutions. This means each team can choose their own tools, and all you have to do is approve the payment. You won't necessarily get the same warm fuzzy feeling of building your own ERP, but for many busy organizations, it's less costly and complicated (and happens faster) than enabling the culture.
- Pro: let people focus on paid client work, and not get distracted by the details of building software.
- Con: higher costs, and the inability to carefully craft solutions that precisely meet your needs
Understand your Point Solution Options
How well do you know the software space? What kind of tools are already available, and what do they do? What frustrations do similar businesses have trying to find and use tools? You want to leverage your collective expertise here as much as possible. And consider reaching out to vendors or suppliers for ideas, they’ve often seen organizations make these decisions up close.
If you don’t know a lot about the space, chances are you have team members who do. In fact, they might have already brought their favorite tools or solutions with them when they joined. But it’s also essential to get more than one person involved in the selection process to ensure bias doesn't preclude you from choosing the best option. Not a full committee, but more diverse than a single opinion. You'll typically have a few kinds of options:
- Free – these are tools that are created by developers who get paid either through good vibes or, more commonly, advertising inside the software
- Paid – traditionally paid software, where you buy licenses, install software, and you're off running
- Freemium- where some options are available for free to all users, but advanced features (often precisely what businesses want or need) cost money. You probably already use some of these tools at work or at home.
- Subscription: in an "everything-as-a-service" world, most office productivity tools are delivered from the cloud. You're not buying software, you're buying licenses, either per user or per organization.
The Final Battle: Budget
Ultimately, many of these decisions come down to money. If you're not already investing a lot in software, how are your teams getting the job done? Are they using a collection of free tools? Or even worse, obsolete 20th-century tools like paper and pen?
Deciding how much to spend is harder. The best bet is to triage – look for the most significant opportunities to add speed or certainty to how teams work. This is the first step when creating a plan. Beyond that:
- Chat with peers in your industry or those working at businesses of similar sizes or shapes. What tools have they tried? Which were disasters? Which are they still using?
- Read reviews online. What do customers like and dislike? Look for users not just using the software but trying to solve similar problems—the more relevant the 'use case,' the more relevant the review. Find out what real users are saying about Kintone on our G2 and Capterra
- Check video services like YouTube. You can find reviews and walk-throughs that show the software in action. This will give you details you can't get reading a brochure or website.
- Signup for a free demo. Many vendors will do it for free, although you'll probably be dealing with aggressive sales reps for a short period of time.
We can help.
At Kintone, we live to help connect businesses of all shapes and sizes with the right software to help transform their business. Whether you're starting from scratch, scaling for growth, or just trying to keep Frank and Francine happy, we can help you assess your needs, understand your needs, and chart the smartest path forward. If you're interested in learning more about how all-in-one platforms can help your team based on your role and area of interest, create a custom demo playlist.
P.S. Are more business apps really what we need to do our best work together? Download this eBook to find out why and how to shift your software mindset, to simplify, not multiply.