Are Your Business Apps Like an Expensive TV Dinner?

Swanson was the first company to achieve success with TV dinners in 1953. The first Swanson-brand TV Dinner was a Thanksgiving meal of turkey, cornbread dressing, peas and sweet potatoes packaged in a tray like those used at the time for airline food service. Interestingly, the name “TV dinner” supposedly came from the shape of the tray it was served on. The main meal was in a bigger compartment on one side of the tray and the vegetables lined up in smaller compartments on the other side – a similar arrangement to that of the front panels of a 1950s television set: a screen on the left and speakers and control on the right. [source:wikipedia]

Convenient, right? You get everything in one box … nothing separate to prepare … all paired with appropriate sides … and you can even balance the tray on your knees, so you can eat dinner in front of the actual TV.

But you pay for that convenience. While they may seem cheap, TV dinners are actually significantly more expensive than if you bought all the food yourself. TV dinners are not the healthiest of food choices, they’re often made with lower quality ingredients, you have no choice as to which sides you get, and the juices from the main meal always seem to end up in the dessert (and salisbury steak flavored brownie is not great). They’re definitely not gourmet meals.

Enterprise application suites are a little like that too. They are promoted as being everything that you need – from one vendor. Theoretically, you don’t have to worry about integration, x-application support or compatibility … your apps will all work together, and exchange information easily. For example, when you buy a marketing application suite, you’ll be getting applications for advertising/promotion, content/experience, social/relationships, commerce/sales, data, and management – all from a single vendor. Just like a TV dinner, everything you need is in the box.

But just like a TV dinner, an enterprise application suite will be expensive, and probably not a “gourmet” experience. You will not be getting the best application in each application space, and you will find yourself compromising on functionality for the sake of ease-of-acquisition and interoperability. But then, as you head down the implementation path, you will find out that each of the applications must be implemented separately, and they don’t work together quite as easily as you had been led to believe – since these suites are often created through acquisition. And in addition to all that, just like TV dinners, application suites actually reduce innovation – as explained in this excellent article by George Earle of ThoughtWorks.

The alternative is a “best-of-breed” approach – similar to the approach a good cook might take when preparing a gourmet meal. They will source the best ingredients they can find – from markets, local gardens and specialty vendors. They then prepare and combine those ingredients to create a delicious, unique meal. Of course, this approach has its costs too – the cook has to know how to prepare and combine those ingredients to arrive at the meal they have in mind. They might not be able to get everything they need from one store, and there is definitely more work involved. But, there is no question that the finished meal will taste significantly better than the TV dinner alternative.

Best-of-breed in the world of enterprise applications has similar challenges. And the integration of apps from different vendors is probably the most daunting – and the primary reason why everybody doesn’t pursue the best-of-breed model.

Until recently, one of the most common solutions to this problem has been the use of integration platforms – with their hundreds of connectors – but they bring their own challenges to the table. Now you have yet another technology to manage; anotherlanguage to learn; another piece of software to maintain; another team of people you need to hire; and you thought that things were going to be easier?

But the world of integration has come a long way since the days of writing your own APIs and web service calls, and maintaining all the app connections yourself. Vendors are now emerging that not only connect your applications together, but manage that connection, and take complete responsibility for getting your data from where it is produced to where it is consumed – even if those apps are in completely different environments. These vendors take the “heavy lifting” out of integration, so that all you need to do is configure what data should go where and when. You can even make integration a part of your existing business workflow – so that your process moves from one app to another, your data does too.

As a result, the integration challenge has become a LOT less daunting … and that makes the best-of-breed approach a LOT more achievable.

So, now that you realize that you don’t have to be a chef to deliver a gourmet meal, are you still planning to stick with TV dinners?

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Craig McDonogh