Among my other activities, I've been actively involved in projects evaluating and administering Salesforce.com over the past four or five years. And while I would love to be able to characterize the whole thing as easy and fun, in reality, the experience has been quite a bit less than that.
I'm not talking about the software platform here -- Salesforce.com is, hands down, one of the most amazing software tools that I have worked with. Instead, the battle has been a culture war, shaped by a cast of players with a variety of agendas, concerns, and a tremendous amount of fear, uncertainty and doubt. I've spent a fair amount of time analyzing, reflecting, and explaining, so maybe some of this will be helpful for you.
Part of the challenge comes from the way that Salesforce.com first gets through the door. In the old days, your average sales guy in smaller companies used ACT to manage their contacts. In that kind of environment, CRM and Contact Management are often interchangeable words, and from the IT side of the world, it could be considered a personal preference decision software dictated and configured by individual sales guys. It's these same sales guys, or their front-line marketing colleagues, that start the wave to bring Salesforce.com into the organization.
As a replacement for ACT or other individual contact management tools, Salesforce.com is a monstrously powerful, paradigm shift, enabling a tremendously expanded range of capabilities and functionality. But the insidious thing about Salesforce.com is that it is extremely easy to configure -- lot's of capability and functionality, but so easy that even a sales guy can enable it. No servers to set up, no software to install -- for a sales or marketing team that feels like they are in a battle with the IS group for control of their software and their computers, all they need is a credit card or a signature to authorize the charges. And this is one aspect of the what makes the IT guys go crazy.
Traditional Enterprise Software versus Salesforce.com
One aspect of traditional enterprise software that tends to shape the IT guy's world is the amount of support required to do stuff. Want to add fields, create reports, or craft a new business process? That's probably going to require an outside consultant or two and several weeks to build. For a lot of the Oracle activities, it's not unusual to have an outside consulting firm providing support for custom configuration, support, or simply building stuff. In contrast, talk to an account reference with Salesforce.com and you're likely to find an admin who has another job as well. Salesforce is so easy to configure, customize, and maintain, it's like an alien creature to the IT world.
The downside of the whole thing is that all of this flexibility and ease of configuration doesn't come cheap. I'm not really talking about the cost of the software as much as the downside of the impact on the Enterprise when sales guys can become defacto IS guys. And perhaps, this is really one of the key questions -- is CRM a down-from-above initiative or an up-from-below initiative?
The Salesforce.com Catch-22
So the sales and marketing group starts using this software that, for the most part, doesn't require IT support. However, there is a tremendous amount of potential in Salesforce.com, and basic CRM functionality is just the tip of the iceberg. So what happens when you need to implement some of that more advanced functionality like say, integrating ERP or accounting data with Salesforce.com? You need resources, support, and buy-in from IT. And while that may not seem like a big deal, hidden under this one topic is much broader philosophical conflict that is shaped by the theology and beliefs of the IT department. I say theology, because Salesforce.com challenges some of the fundamental views of some IT organizations, concepts and ideas that they hold like axiomatic articles of faith.
In many ways, Salesforce.com is like those early days in the Protestant Reformation, when the Bible was translated from Latin -- the language of the Roman Catholic church -- into German. Salesforce.com rewrites some fundamental assumptions about enterprise IT infrastructure, software, and about what expertise is required to work with these systems. In terms of the IT organization, this ideological reformation means that, without some 'mindset converts', you will be facing an uphill struggle when it comes to implementing advanced integration or broad process reform.
Looking for Converts to the Cloud
Mindset converts come in a variety of flavors. Salesforce tries to engage senior executives early in their sales process because, like with founding of the Church of England, once the king changes faith, he can mandate that change down through the business. This is particularly true if you're dealing with the president, CEO or CIO, but if your dealing with your basic sales or marketing leader as executive sponsor, the scope of their influence may be limited.
At some of the Salesforce.com customer events, I've also seen where some IT groups have added a dedicated resource for Salesforce.com. While you might expect this to be an indicator of some deeper acceptance of the platform, that isn't always true. Sometimes it's just a token bone thrown to a vocal internal constituency, not an actual adoption of the ideas or a conversion.
And if you're on the other side of the equation trying to pull adoption and organizational conversion, you may find yourself feeling like an evangelist, trying to invite your IT colleagues over for yet another attempt at creating an awakening. However, it's unlikely that you're going to be able to drag someone through a 'Saul on the road to Damascus' transformation unless they find it themselves -- just look at what Apple went through trying to get people to convert from PCs to Macs.
Beyond Platforms and Paradigms, With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility
Like the Protestant Reformation, that fundamental change that Salesforce.com enables has a number of broader effects. Even when Salesforce.com sneaks in through an up-from-below path and disrupts the traditional IT architecture dogma, for the platform to be truly successful it must take on a dogmatic down-from-above role. Even in the face of what may seem like an obvious roadmap for the platform, enterprise software platforms don't succeed through ad hoc adoption and growth.
The challenge may be even bigger for smaller businesses. Most global enterprise customers have an established IT infrastructure and a global strategy for their information system architecture. However, with their customizable SaaS platform and infrastructure on a credit card, Salesforce.com opens up a world of enterprise software capabilities to small and mid-sized businesses. And while these customers can benefit greatly from the capabilities that Salesforce.com brings to the table, they may not have the strategic infrastructure to craft their information system architecture.
But don't let me scare you. As I mentioned at the start, Salesforce.com is truly some of the most amazing software that I have worked with. It's transformational, enabling technology that has opened a world of functionality to businesses that couldn't afford those capabilities before. But even if you can see the vision and the possibilities, don't underestimate the cultural challenges that may be coming. And if you are an influencer or an executive sponsor, consider picking up an enterprise IT strategy book like Enterprise Architecture As Strategy: Creating a Foundation for Business Execution,