Can Enterprise Software Innovation Be Industrialized ?

Every enterprise software vendor I know of touts innovation in every message they share with their ecosystem. It has many flavors – open innovation, inclusive innovation and so on. Yet, there are very few products that come out that customers cheer as innovative.

That shows a couple things clearly, in my opinion
1. There is more thought leadership and marketing about innovation, and less actual innovation
2. Innovation does not scale

More Talk, Less Action

This is not a surprise, since generally talk precedes action in software circles ( as proven by hype cycles of SOA, social business, big data etc in last 5 years alone).  SOA by now is well accepted, and real projects use it. When it first was talked about and evangelized, very few projects used it. Social business and Big data will most probably follow that same trend.

But unlike with SOA, I see a disturbing trend with newer topics. People who talked up SOA had a good proportion of folks who knew what they were talking about. They could articulate the value proposition, and answer criticism logically and explain the pitfalls. Even then, it took several years for actual projects to use SOA at scale.

That is not true for currently hyped stuff like cloud, big data, social business etc.  There is an absolute minority of people who can sound credible when they talk about these topics. That scares me.  A lot of evangelists of cloud, for example, have never seen a data center, worked closely with an IT organization , been involved with a CAPEX/OPEX decision in their life at big scale, or negotiated a software contract to know how lock in happens in on-demand and on-premises world. Yet, they have no problems advising CIOs (at least allegedly advising) on what they should do about cloud.  And they are the loudest – so I always worry some CIO will inadvertently fall for it and make a bad decision.  A lot of reasonable voices on cloud just drown unnoticed because of the loud evangelizing of the people who are unreasonable.

There is a simple reason I worry about this topic.  I get paid for actual execution of projects. When unrealistic expectations are set for my clients, my job gets harder because a lot of my time will be spent in convincing people to let go of fantasies and get realistic. That is time that I should have spent in executing the project.  I also get criticized by many friends that I have no incentive as a consultant to promote cloud, since it reduces consulting effort. Actually nothing is farther from truth. Cloud needs a lot of change management, integration and migration work . I ( and others like me) will earn a living doing that work instead of on-premises work. So – no , I do not worry for a second about my work disappearing.

Does Innovation Scale ?

I used to think till very recently that innovation scales. I was wrong – it does not scale. I need to live with it. Innovation – and the associated disruption – is not every ones cup of tea. In fact most people cannot live with innovation in their work life. The same people usually love innovation as a consumer of someone else’s work.


To begin with – it is very difficult for two people to agree on definition of innovation.  For example, SAP promotes design thinking a lot. It is a simple philosophy, but if you ask 3 people in SAP to explain it to you – you will rarely get any consistency in their responses. That is not a bad thing really. If two smart teams are given a problem to solve – and they both follow design thinking approach – there is practically no possibility that the two teams will come out with same solution. We all have our biases – formed by our life experiences. That decides what questions we ask, and you only get responses for questions you ask. And the solution you design depends on those answers. Ergo – design thinking is not a magic bullet that helps industrialize innovation.  It does help provide a structure – and that is pretty much it.

We all know what happens when design happens by committee. And if Jobs and Ive tried to ask customers on how to get requirements for Apple products, how would that have worked for them ? So, essentially true innovation needs special people, who by definition are small in number in any population. And even those people can only come out with so many new ideas. Look at Apple – they have shifted to an incremental improvement model now. May be something truly innovative will come again from them in future, but it is a good point for rest of us to know how mass innovation does not happen.

I am still on the fence on effect of inclusion on innovation. That is what I am planning to think through in the next 36 hours or so that it will take for me to reach India.


Published by Vijay Vijayasankar

Son/Husband/Dad/Dog Lover/Engineer. Follow me on twitter @vijayasankarv. These blogs are all my personal views - and not in way related to my employer or past employers

24 thoughts on “Can Enterprise Software Innovation Be Industrialized ?

  1. Vijay, in most parts, good points. You are right to be concerned about difficulty of integrating cloud applications. However, there would always be this question of flexibility and maximization of functions. For example it is easier for a small cloud vendor to develop an optimal function specific software without worrying about the integration issues at the outset.

    I do think it is fundamental question on how a business chooses to organize, the nature of the industry and need for the organisation to be an integrated whole. Form follows function. There is always this fine balance between what could be Global, standard and what must be Local, flexible. That is as much if not more of a business question as it is IT.


  2. Innovation can scale in enterprise software. You are correct that Design Thinking won’t yield it, in spite of the hype cycle. For innovation to scale the existing enterprise software needs to be isolated. Coincidentally, my company has delivered the enterprise software that promotes innovation. Small groups of experts inside of a company know a much better way than any design thinking software team ever will. For the same reasons you shudder at cloud experts vacant of actual experience I do at old-school enterprise software companies talking about innovation. How do you suggest we out-think the loud mouth evangelists?


  3. What I’ve seen in over 15 years in ERP is that no matter how many mega-size companies use a technology, it’s only when it gets down to mid-size companies then you know it’s reached Main Street and has been accepted.


    1. Simon, I don’t know you so please take no offense but what are you talking about? Acceptance for ERP? It is a virtual occupation. I think the time to declare surrender, errrr, acceptance was over 5 years ago. What this article tip toes around is the innovation sapping software called ERP or Best of Breed or even Legacy. After 15 years its all legacy. They stifle innovation and the legacy architecture alone makes nimble, agile and innovation foreign concepts.


  4. On the first part of your article …

    Whenever there is hype, there seems to be a tendency to follow a prescription and loose sight of where the value is.

    Take SOA for example, I’ve been on far too many projects where to consume a service I’m asked to sit with the service developer and understand how and when I should call it, what side effects it can have etc. These teams believe their application is service oriented, but using SOAP or REST doesn’t make you service oriented, having true separation of concerns between the service producer and the service consumer does. That’s where the value of SOA is.

    Similarly, renting servers on Amazon doesn’t make you cloudy, having a truly elastic application that can reduce costs and deliver instant scale-up/scale-down and high availability does.

    I attended a design thinking workshop at TechEd last year. It was a lot of fun and I really enjoyed participating, even made a few new friends. But, this workshop was providing a prescription for how to do design thinking, it suggested that somehow by sitting with a group of people and a bunch of post-its, you can magically become design thinkers. The message of tinkering with fundamentals, questioning assumptions, deep thought and understanding, research etc. didn’t come through to me.


  5. Vijay,
    Thanks for this thought-provoking post (as always). It made me think of a little twist to the subject which I recorded in a six minutes video response. You can find it here:
    P.S.: I love Michael’s insightful comment and my response is strongly influenced by a discussion Michael and I had about a year ago.


  6. Wow, there are a lot of deep thoughs in a couple of paragraphs. In no particular order, here are a bunch of comments:

    Engineering software is a science, but inventing software is an art. I used to think that innovation through software was consequently an art too, mostly determined by the right people in the right environment finding each other and having a fantastic collaboration, so they could change the world. I thought it was more or less coincidence, because the “right people” wouldn’t find each other easily, and – in that you are right – innovation is not everybody’s cup of tea. Thank God. If everybody would keep on innovating, nobody would operate companies any more, fix bugs, improve performance etc.

    At the same time, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the pace of innovation has dramatically increased in the last decade, at least when it comes to software. More companies have come out in such a short amount of time that have fundamentally changed the way people interact with each other. So, there must be a scalability element to innovation, and funny enough, intentionally or not, you have touched upon what I believe made the difference.

    You talked about SOA in your post. Well, I spent a couple of years of my time trying to “design by committee” — it was miserable. And it was not because of bad intentions. I genuinly think that – despite the politics – there were very creative and innovative engineers involved that defined SOA and particularely the underlying protocols. So, obvioulsy, innovation did not scale here.

    At the same time, the big standard guys looked rather suspiciously at the open source people who in parallel defined quite wonderful software and methods like REST — not designed by committee at all. I’m not going to give you a bunch of romantic crap about the wonders of open source – I’m totally beyond that. But it’s just a reality that the act of engineering software has been dramatically improved by the ability to share best practices and code across organizations. I’m just getting back into true engineering, and it’s amazing to see how well engineers can learn from each other across organizational and corporate boundardies. And collaborative platforms like Eclipse, github etc have made it easier for the “right” people to get together.

    Just looking at NetWeaver Cloud and HANA XS are two great examples: Both are groups that have been deeply influenced by the open source mentality. NW Cloud is obviously built from the ground up in open source, and the fact that XS used the Mozilla JavaScript engine as a key incredient would have been impossible a few years back.

    So, while I do believe that thankfully innovation plays a reduced role in operating IT (thankfully, otherwise nobody would operate any more), I strongly believe that the art and science of creating software and innovating with software has a new scability element to it that hadn’t been there a decade ago.

    Now on to your topic of “design thinking” at SAP. I started my career in UI about 20 years ago. I built graphical user interfaces before there was Windows. I worked in the SAPGUI team (just to name an example that didn’t go so well 😉 but it helped me innovate the way SAP users interface with the system through a Web browser. So, I know a thing or two about users and UI. As such, I was (and still am) deeply suspicious about a buzzword like “design thinking” because it could still be the latest trend that SAP is always so good to talk about, but then not able to execute. SOA happens to be one of those trends where SAP talked a lot but didn’t do so well.

    Do I believe that people who immerse themselves in the art of design and study the topic can really make a difference? Absolutely! They will bring the neccessary rigor to a process that’s otherwise dictated by engineering. But do I believe that just by repeating “design thinking” SAP executives will change the company? No, I don’t. You are right in your observation that I’m not aware of a clear definition and methodology of SAP’s “design thinking” that is consistent across the organization.

    But on the flipside, it’s also true that by talking about it, SAP’s executives will gradually change the mindset in the company. Changing what is now a 70,000 people company is not easy. And I’ve seen proof points that people’s thinking has changed, which is great. At the same time, I’ve seen plenty of examples where people just put “design thinking” on a bunch of slides, without seeing any proof that their thinking has changed and where they just attempted to make their material more buzzword compliant. That’s the moments where I also get depressed and see how people are resistent to innovation, because as opposed to deeply immersing themselves in what is an important topic, they continue on their ways and disguise themselves as something new, but really stick with the old. In that regards, it’s true that it could be seen as evidence that innovation indeed doesn’t scale.


    1. Thanks for the insightful article, Vijay, Michael. My manager recommended to read because I run a lot of customer workshops (so far, over 60 projects) to drive big deal and escalation in SAP; with our methodology – similar philosophy to Design Thinking. I put my small 2 cents on “does innovation scale?”

      Innovation is an expensive journey; making buzz is the cheapest way to become want-to-be innovators. I think it happens everywhere. According to HBS study, only 2 % in a company is recognized as innovator and they are treated as geeks, not respected opinion leaders. Think about large software company. If the innovator is not a CEO or executive, you can imagine how difficult it is actually to realize. In SAP, HANA means innovation and that camewith Hasso.

      In that sense, innovation doesn’t scale within a big enterprise because it’s expensive journey; great idea + great power to push and drive; I agree innovation scales outside of enterprise boundary because it’s not hierachically organized; open source, brilliant small start-ups…

      On the other hand, I thought about Design Thinking, I enjoy the buzz in this company. 6 years back, when I started to run totally different customer workshop (at that time, I didn’t know about Design Thinking at all) with new methodology (Systems theory + EA + cognitive science & little big of brain science flavor), it was difficult to persuade AE, Client partner, or even my colleagues. Now, I just piggyback the marketing buzz.
      The point is that management buzziness is very useful to creat socially & structurally supported environment where people try something new, potentially innovative. Design Thinking APPROACH is a good guide for innovation thought process. In that sense, it is a right innovation catalyzer which might make it scalable to certain degree.

      In my summary, Innovative idea can scale with such catalyzer as Design Thinking but realizing innovation can’t scale because it’s very expensive. This might be a never-ending homework for great successful company.


  7. Brilliant. There’s lots of thinking out there that inspires CIOs. Takes a lot more to inspire them with executable innovation. Jobs didn’t sell us a product that solved a problem we didn’t have. Apple’s products framed the solution to existing problems that we couldn’t get our arms around. Safe travels.


  8. Mass innovation does happen, take politics for example. Granted its a ‘choice’ factor and you are not creating a new candidate, but neverthless, you are exerting your influence, your mass influence on ‘choosing’ a candidate with certain feature/functionalities. But I digress, your topic is about Mass innovation in Enterprise Software. Would you consider Open Source as one form of mass innovation? And if so, there are some successes to be pointed out there.


      1. I’d have to disagree that open source fits the “mass innovation” profile. That’s actually a common misconception. Like most software endeavours, if you look at the actual participants, it’s a small, core group of individuals who produce most of the results. It’s no different that most forms of innovation. I think we’ve all realized by now that the “infinite monkey theorem” does not apply to software innovation…


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