In a recent post titled “Platform-Based vs Traditional ERP vendors”, we explored the advantages of a platform-based technology approach for today’s businesses seeking ways to remain competitive and achieve efficiencies. In this post, we’ll discuss how to assess a platform and determine whether a given platform will be able to address an organization’s needs over the next 10 to 15 years. Specifically, we’ll suggest the things to understand as platforms are evaluated and provide questions that will enable organizations to judge platform suitability.
Platforms – Public and Open
“Platforms” can mean almost anything. On premise, traditional ERP solutions can be called platforms. A cloud-based collection of resources could also be considered a platform. And, applications can be built upon platforms such as Microsoft SQL. So, by definition, a platform is simply a basis on which an organization is operating.
For this discussion, we are defining a platform as a public, cloud-based, open environment where a variety of vendors can “come in” and design different solutions that are a part of that ecosystem. These solutions are built using the platform’s tools and the environment is characterized by innovation and continual growth and improvement.
This is contrary to vendors that maintain a closed or private platform. So, even though there are some very progressive cloud-based solutions, some of the platforms upon which they are based can be closed (or more restrictive) to external development and innovation.
Prior to embarking on a platform assessment, an organization should first understand the technical resources that exists within its organization. Further, the organization should strategically decide the degree to which internal technical resources will have a “voice” in the evaluation process. Internal resources can provide invaluable perspective, however, it’s important to ensure that an objective “what’s best for the business” approach is brought to the process. Protecting IT fiefdoms will impede the evaluative process.
The process of incorporating external expertise into the evaluation can be sensitive but the value of an independent voice with deep platform familiarity should be considered. A collaborative mix of internal and external resources may lead to the selection of the “right” platform as well as facilitate an effective implementation process.
Where to Begin the Evaluation?
Once the internal/external issue has been decided, the first step is to understand an organization’s business requirements. Without that clear understanding of what a business requires, then it can’t start to evaluate what kind of platforms are going to fit. Examples of business requirements may be:
- Sales Order Processing
- Receivables Tracking
- Marketing Campaign support
- Web stores
- eCommerce capabilities
- Event Management
So, the essential first step is to make sure that those requirements have been identified, documented and are well understood.
Where to Discover Platform Marketplaces?
The process to find the “right-fit” marketplace will take time and should be performed in a deliberate manner. Casting a broader net at the outset (vs. a deep dive into the first platform discovered) will likely yield a better outcome. These are suggested points through which an organization’s platform discovery should commence:
- Peers – getting face to face with peers who are under similar pressures and understanding what they are seeing and hearing, can be an effective way to shape the discovery process.
- Professional organizations – these groups often exist to support members and information sharing is key to their mission.
- Industry publications – leverage the investigative reporting that may already have been performed.
- Internet – prior to embarking on broad-based web search, there may be benefit in beginning with items #1-3 to help shape and focus that process.
What Questions Should be Addressed?
Migrating to a platform is a significant decision which has long-term (10-15 years) implications. So, the prudent and wise decision maker must become comfortable that “joining” a platform community will address the needs of today as well as deep into the future. These are questions to pose when assessing a platform:
- How often are new applications added to the marketplace?
- How easy it is for new vendors to come on to the platform and offer up a new application?
- How many applications are available?
- What kind of testing is done to assure that applications are functional and secure?
- Are “sandbox” or test environments available? Is this available pre-purchase?
- What criteria exists to ensure that only quality applications are considered in the marketplace?
- How can I understand how an application will work before making an investment (of money and time)?
- How readily can applications be deployed into an organization’s’ infrastructure?
- How readily can applications be integrated into each other and part of the whole on the platform?
- How can applications be modified or customized (over time) to address changing business requirements?
- Does the platform marketplace cater to specific industries?
- How broad and deep is the community of consultant and technical experts that support a platform?
- How long has that platform been around?
- What does it take to join a platform ecosystem?
A “Gold Standard”?
While there are numerous public and open platforms, the Salesforce AppExchange demonstrates many strong characteristics. We’ll highlight several of these as it models best practices approaches including:
- Longevity – this exchange has been in existence for over 10 years so it’s had substantial time to grow, mature and evolve.
- Ease of Use – the exchange readily and effectively presents its community offerings. Its homepage dashboard features key and relevant metrics such as total apps in the marketplace, free vs. paid and apps by category. Additionally, it provides a directory of consultants that serve the community:
- Breadth of Offerings – there is a wide range of applications in this marketplace developed by large and small companies (and individuals.) With such breadth, users often have a wide array of options from which to test and choose.
- Controls – while the barrier to entry for apps is low in the sense that almost any person or organization can learn about the platform and create applications, there are stringent security and testing reviews to police the community.
- Proven – with over 4 million installations, this platform is tested and proven.
It Starts with a Plan
There is much to consider when evaluating and selecting a platform. And, it begins with a plan. In essence, what do we need to do and by when? Clearly, flexibility should be part of the planning process and the preliminary plan should include thinking around:
- Definition of needs
- Urgency of addressing these needs
- Timeframe in which action needs to be taken
- Budget that may be available to address the specified needs
The platform-based technology approach can enable businesses unique ways in which to remain competitive and achieve efficiencies. However, selecting the “right” platform requires a well-planned and deliberate process.