Vanilla never wins: The case against business process standardization

Go to any IT conference these days and you're likely to hear a CIO or two speaking about the need to simplify and standardize business processes as much as possible, particularly as enterprise software moves into the cloud.

Eric Robinson, CIO at Color Spot Nurseries, Inc. isn't about to fall into that trap.

The $300 million wholesale grower of plants for retailers such as Home Depot, Lowes and Walmart has 450 licensed users on an SAP system that includes all of the core modules -- and lots of customizations. Each one is there for a reason, Robinson says, and he's not about to rock the boat just for the sake of standardizing.

"Back in 1999 my strategy was to stay as vanilla as possible. Now my philosophy has changed," he says. If anything, his team will move toward more customization, not less.

While SAP makes standard software that follows best practice business processes, it's still the same one-size-fits-all flavor that all of his competitors get. Not only is that a concern, he says, but SAP knows very little about the nuances of Color Spot's business, so nothing has been tailored to his industry's unique needs. "And it never will be, because there are so few potential customers," he says.

What's more, his team can create add-ons more quickly than waiting for new functionality that might be developed by SAP. And, he adds, "I believe that our processes are ten times more nimble."

Forcing vanilla business process standards on the business is also likely to be unpopular. Like many organizations, Color Spot has customized SAP extensively to work exactly they way the busines wants it to work. "We do our best to stay with best business practices, but in the end the business typically wins," he says. And while the conventional wisdom in moving to the cloud may be to go in clean with minimal customizations, that's an uphill battle that Robinson says is not worth the fight. "It's nearly impossible to get people to give up bells and whistles, and changing business processes is extremely difficult."

The bottom line is that most well-run busineses typically spend money to write customizations only when they convey a competitive advantage. "Our business drives the ERP system, not the other way around," he says.

"Is the modification providing a competitive advantage or not? That's the decision we have to make every day," he says."Those successful in choosing which modifications provide competitive advantage will be the better run organizations. That's the future."

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