Business Change Begins With CRM

After several years of horror stories surrounding customer relationship management system deployments, the good news seems to be that interest in CRM is once again on the rise.

What’s driving this, of course, is an across-the-board need for more visibility into the business, given the demands of macro trends such as compliance and accountability to shareholders. And for most business executives, the one real truth about the business is the data that shows up in sales reports every day.

For an information-technology person, a CRM application may seem like a relatively trivial new project to deploy. After all, I.T. organizations for years have been providing business executives with some type of sales forecasting tools using any combination of Excel spreadsheets, Notes databases and Microsoft Outlook e-mail clients.

But now that we have a broad number of packaged CRM applications that generally work, the temptation to think about CRM as a tactical rather than strategic tool is even greater. Rather than merely use CRM as a sales forecasting application, the time may have arrived when we need to think about it as the new universal front end to all of our other enterprise applications.

What’s driving this line of thought is the fact that data residing in, say, a general ledger or supply chain management system generally doesn’t have a lot of context without related sales data. So, a lot of companies that have already deployed CRM systems are now thinking about transforming the technology into a front-end application that gives them a total view of the business, because CRM is tightly connected to data sources that reside in a wide number of related systems.

This is a good thing because it lets a business executive go directly to the CRM application to find the one truth about the business, versus having to reconcile reports from multiple applications that typically have conflicting data sets.

But where does that level of integration take us? Because of the advent of technologies such as Web services, the walls between applications are rapidly coming down. In effect, rather than being individual platforms that lock up your data behind a series of impenetrable proprietary interfaces, applications are increasingly becoming open containers that house related sets of data. And if data can move easily from one application to another, the question that emerges is whether there will be a need for distinct enterprise application categories as we know them today.

In other words, will CRM, supply chain management, accounting and related programs meld into the realm of business process management software? In that model, CRM is really just a feature of the greater whole—and the only way to derive the full value of the investment in I.T. would be to deploy a truly integrated set of business management software.

You might argue that this was the core concept behind enterprise resource planning packages, but for all intents and purposes the relatively crude integration tools that first came with those suites made them equivalent to bundles of software rather than a real business process management system. That lack of integration then gave birth to a consulting industry that made billions of dollars getting the bundles of software to be relatively loosely integrated.

But now we’re seeing the birth of business process management systems, such as the one created for the financial services industry by Chordiant Software, that treat applications as features of a larger system, rather than individual elements that need to be integrated using brute force and a separate application server.

It’s still too early to say how this move to business process management platforms will play out, but it does seem certain that the deployment of an effective CRM system is the first step toward a more holistic approach to enterprise applications. And regardless of anything Nicholas Carr might say about the long-term value of I.T., companies such as Dell and Wal-Mart have shown that greater visibility into their business processes gives them a sustained advantage over the competition.

Given that, deploying a CRM system might be the most important action an I.T. project leader could take—part of an extended process that will first change how users interact with data across the business, and then transform the way the business sees itself.

Michael Vizard is editorial director at Ziff Davis Media’s enterprise technology group. He can be reached at [email protected].