The Trouble with Enterprise Software

Cynthia Rettig

Cynthia Rettig, The Trouble with Enterprise Software, MIT Sloan Management Review, 49(1):21-27, 2007.

Drawing upon a wealth of data, informed experience, and expert opinion — from Thomas Friedman to Bjarne Stroustrup, from David Gelernter to Nicholas Carr — the author builds a case that enterprise software in large organizations has not delivered on its promise to fully integrate and intelligently control complex business processes while remaining flexible enough to adapt to changing business needs. Instead, ERP systems — including both software applications and the data they process — are variegated patchworks, containing 50 or more databases and hundreds of separate software programs installed over decades and interconnected by idiosyncratic, Byzantine, and poorly documented customized processes. To manage this growing complexity, IT departments have grown substantially: Today's IT departments spend 70% to 80% of their budgets just trying to keep existing systems running. The research shows, says the author, that the typical IT structure is so dense and extensive that it's often a miracle that it works at all. Enterprise systems that were supposed to streamline and simplify business processes instead have brought high risks, uncertainty, and a deeply worrying level of complexity. Rather than agility, they have produced rigidity and unexpected barriers to change, a veritable glut of information containing myriad hidden errors, and a cloud of questions regarding their overall benefits. How did this happen? Rettig points to the inherent limitations in the nature of software, the costs of implementation, and the vagaries of data. Indeed, she offers, enterprise software may be just too complex to deliver on its promises. She also suggests that the next new thing — service-oriented architecture (SOA) — is not likely to fare much better, for many of the same reasons. There are no easy fixes, cautions Rettig, save a large dose of sobriety, clear-eyed analysis, and emphasis on simplicity and efficiency.


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