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Killer apps? Get ready to wait

CIO Les Johnson puts his ERP hopes on hold while typical project delays eat up time. But killer apps await.

This afternoon, I'm whiling away my time in the backwaters of project delays, looking at a thunderhead of slipped schedules and overcommitted resources. Amid the ominous collection of clouds stands a date that is perilously close to our fiscal-year end. Big sigh.

During the lull, I thought about the opportunities on the other side of project completion. The speed of 21st-century business needs the lubricant of current and future-generation tools to make it frictionless and keep it profitable.

But the gestation period for killer apps always lags behind needs. The first ERP-like application was developed in the early 1960s from a partnership between J.J. Case, a tractor manufacturer, and IBM. Manufacturing resource planning (MRP) was born to help plan and execute efficient manufacturing resources. A decade later, five bright boys in Germany formed Systeme, Anwendungen und Produkte, or SAP, to apply the lessons learned from MRP to business processing.

The idea caught on with other wunderkinder, and companies such as Oracle, JD Edwards and PeopleSoft sprang up, all with a vision of creating the mother of all business software.

By the 1990s, ERP applications controlled the flow of business information in America and Western Europe. But they were limited to procedural functions inside the four walls of the organization. The Web and e-business were still a gleam in visionaries' eyes.

Meanwhile, hucksters sitting in formerly smoke-filled rooms were playing with their instant acronym kits devising methods to improve the way business is done between buyers and sellers. The e-bubble grew, popped and left some good ideas in its trail of devastation. Supply chain management (SCM) is close to my heart because it changes the model that distributors and manufacturers use to do business with one another. Another group remembered that the customer is king and set out to bring marketing along. They dubbed their offspring "customer relationship management" (CRM), with the promise that vendors could see into the hearts of their customers and know what to sell before customers knew what they needed.

High on my radar is the potential of business intelligence (BI) tools. Like Kentucky moonshiners trying to make the sweetest nectar this side of gasoline, BI applications promise to serve up what every knowledge worker needs to know to be efficient, effective and profitable. They are the new paradigm that distills plain data into key performance indicators.

But SCM, CRM and BI applications are all bolt-ons that aren't worth much if they don't have something to bolt on to. Wearing a ruffled shirt, a cummerbund and shined shoes doesn't make you ready for the dance: You still need the tuxedo.

ERP is the tuxedo. Unfortunately, my company's tuxedo is a little long in the pants and tight in the shoulders, so things will take longer than we hoped. The tailors and dry cleaners all took longer than we hoped.

But the fire of what-if has lit up our organization. The ops folks are dreaming of machine-to-machine interfaces that will eliminate pesky humans from gumming up the works, marketing guys are talking about CRM like it's an old friend and our executives are asking questions about BI.

At a recent executive committee meeting, it seemed the answer to every question was, "That'll have to wait until the ERP system is online." The answer to the follow-up was, "Soon." We have to keep feeding the fire until soon arrives.

At the end of my reverie, I realized that all this was good news. With the untapped potential of these tools, it looked like a full-employment plan for CIOs.

The thunderhead still looms, and the air is charged with pre-storm ozone. We are racing against a year-end alarm clock, praying we come in under the wire.

Les Johnson is CIO at North Coast Electric Co., a wholesale electrical distributor in Bellevue, Wash. Write to him at This story originally appeared in the December 2005 issue of CIO Decisions magazine.

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