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3 May 2011

The third shall be first

By Andrew Clifford

General-purpose applications such as Excel are often the only choice for IT solutions.

When we define an IT solution, we have to choose between building application software or buying pre-built applications.

Generally, our first preference is to buy pre-built applications. This has many advantages. It is quick to implement. Somebody else looks after support, maintenance and future development. The application will embody best practices, and the organisation can improve its processes by adopting these. If we can find a suitable one, a packaged application (installed or delivered as software-as-a-service) is almost always the best option. However, there are downsides. If the application does not fit requirements closely, expensive customizations will be required, or the organisation will need to change its processes. Some packaged applications are very expensive.

Where pre-built applications are unavailable, or not a close enough fit to requirements, our next choice if often to develop a custom application. This allows us to build an application that meets requirements closely. However, this takes time and costs money, and leaves the organisation with an ongoing requirement to support, maintain and develop the application. Custom-built applications are never a cheap option.

There is, however, a third choice. We can use a more general-purpose application that can be configured to meet requirements.

The best-known example is Excel. Although ostensibly a tool for accounting and related activities, it can be used to store and process a great variety of information. Although it is easy to criticize Excel-based solutions, it is undoubtedly very popular as a general-purpose application.

Organisations very commonly adopt this third choice, though less often when the IT department is in control. We IT professionals tend to dismiss this type of solution as a inherently weak, only suitable when there are no packaged applications, and where there is not a good enough business case for a proper development. However, I think this is missing an important point.

The value of general-purpose applications is not as a poor third to packaged application or custom development, but that they fill a different niche. They allow IT solutions to be provided where there is not a well-defined business case for a "proper" solution, where there is not enough political backing for a solution, where the organisation can not afford a bigger investment, where experts are not available to support a procurement or development process, when a solution is required very quickly, where requirements are ill-defined or change too much, or where end users need a high degree of control over the solution. In many cases, the third choice is the only choice.

Given the benefits and inevitability of using general-purpose applications, I think we IT professional need to promote them more. They have a great potential for meeting demand for IT at low cost. Although they may seem to threaten our position, in the long run it is better to work with them than to oppose them.

Next week I will cover some of the objections to general-purpose applications, and suggest how these could be overcome.

Next: The weakness of Excel

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