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How can IT improve its reputation with the business? Enterprise apps that adapt to changing business circumstances are a good start

One of the criticisms IT people hear regularly from the business is: why aren't IT developments as reliable as construction projects? Charles Wang, in his book Techno Vision II, quotes an anonymous executive who once said to him: "if engineers built roads and bridges the way organizations build strategic information management systems, the first woodpecker that came along would destroy civilization".

This is not really a fair comparison, as many people in IT well understand. Roads and bridges are built across largely static landscapes. The business environment is much more volatile. Research shows that merger and acquisition activity in the US has nearly tripled in the last ten years. Despite this instability, evidence from the Standish Group suggests that, over this time, IT has been getting significantly better in delivering projects on time, within budget and with the promised functionality. Nevertheless, there is clearly still much room for improvement.

As a keynote speaker at last year's local CIO magazine conference in Australia pointed out, business has fluctuated wildly in its approach to IT over the years. Initially, the focus was on in-built departmental solutions, which resulted in silos and fragmentation. The 1980s was the era of enterprise projects. However, these proved too long-winded and cumbersome to deliver any real benefits. In the 1990s the pendulum swung back to departmental package solutions as organizations sought immediate returns. This, however, produced the same silos and fragmentation that characterized the earliest efforts in IT. The speaker at the CIO conference claimed to see a new swing back to packaged enterprise systems such as ERP. However, he stressed that if these are to be successful, the key ingredient they need to offer is adaptability to changing business circumstances.

Research carried out by CIO magazine in the United States shows that nearly one third of CIO are dissatisfied with packaged software functionality. Packages are an inherently frustrating compromise. They rarely match exact business practices and offer little scope for competitive advantage. Furthermore, organizations soon find that the intellectual property within these systems is held by an outside organisation - an organization that can then hold the business captive to its upgrade cycles. But the complaint most often heard is that packages are unable to evolve to meet the changing needs of the business. Their logic and architecture are built for a moment in time that rapidly becomes obsolete.

In recent times, software has emerged that can provide flexibility within business applications. These systems revolve around business rules, and they allow users to define and refine these parameters over time to meet new operational circumstances. Nevertheless, the underlying system processing logic can still work against these new values. One example might be in the insurance industry, where, because of inflation over time, an insurance company might need to raise the minimum excess in a car accident from $250 to $500. In a hardwired system the programmer would have to change the code to reflect this new condition. In a rules engine, however, all that's needed is to alter the rule parameter referenced by the program.

IDC identifies these applications as part of an emerging business process automation market. It believes their greatest strength is that such systems provide an organization with the flexibility to tailor applications to their own specific business rules. In many ways this offers a glimpse of an ideal world. The business gets a complete system, but one with enough flexibility to mould it to their own needs. IDC's research shows that there will be nearly a 40 percent compound annual growth rate in this market over the next four years.

This flexibility in business process automation could well offer businesses a happy compromise between packages and bespoke applications. However, the fundamentals for IT projects remain unchanged. As engineers learned along time ago, good projects revolve around managing expectations and keeping a tight rein on project deliverables. Perhaps only when IT is better at these tasks will our industry get close to the success rate enjoyed by the construction and engineering industries.

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