Business software: devil’s in the detail

In the late 1990s, when most large companies were pre-occupied with the
millennium bug, the most popular business systems were of the ERP ­ or
enterprise-wide ­ variety. A complete business system could be replaced by a
fully integrated system using a single database model.

How things have changed. The ERP single database concept did not deliver all
that was promised. At present, there is no longer a pressing requirement to
replace all the company’s business systems in one swoop. Today most companies
are looking for specific modules or add-ons to integrate with their existing

Upgrade facility

Instead of planning to replace business systems every five years; with modern
upgrade facilities provided by software developers, there is very little reason
to change established systems.

The annual surveys undertaken by the ICAEW show that less than 12% of
companies are considering replacing their accounting systems.

Typically, a company’s business system is made up of many different
applications ­ often from different suppliers. In some cases these systems are
integrated, either electronically or via a spreadsheet. Many just operate on a
stand-alone basis.

Instead of one company-wide database, these products use separate databases
and file structures without any chance of integration. Many companies complain
of ‘several versions of the truth’ when trying to make decisions based on these
disparate systems.

The systems are often owned by different departments within the organisation
any thought of upgrading or replacing adjacent systems can often spark inter-

departmental wars!

The market today for business software is therefore for specialist add-ons
that do not disrupt the status-quo ­ we used to call them ‘best-of-breed’
applications. Some of these products claim they have the means to enable
‘effortless integration’ with surrounding applications, without having to
replace or upgrade those other applications.

Departments can hopefully find their required specialist products and
company’s complex system architecture with the minimum of disruption. These
applications do not simplify a company’s systems architecture ‘spaghetti’, nor
will they provide a single database system for the whole company, but they will
meet the immediate business needs with the minimum of inconvenience and cost.

From more than 800 accounting systems 15 years ago, today there are fewer
than 100 in full development mode available in the UK. Consolidation in the
industry, by giants like Microsoft, Oracle and Sage, has curtailed the variety
of business systems available.

Moving with the times

Many business software developers have gone out of business ­ unable to keep
up with developments in modern Windows and web technologies.

There are, of course, many developers hanging on by providing support to
their legacy applications, but these products are now in maintenance-mode, with
little change or any significant development.

Recent estimates of the size of the larger business software market, from
Accountancy Age’s sister publication Computing, show that
there are more than 2,000 business software developers in the UK.

Some of these are typical software developers offering a complete integrated
suite of applications, either directly or indirectly, through resellers to their
customers. However, the majority are specialist ‘value-added’ developers who
have bolted on specialist modules to existing business systems.

These value added resellers (VARs), provide vertical industry products for
the hotel industry, car hire, or retailers etc. Many will use industry standard
systems to host their software product, like Sage 50-to-200 and Microsoft
Dynamics, which they sell and support with their own.

Estimates from the Professional Computing Association show that there are
more than 3,000 resellers in the UK ­ but not all will have their own software
So a customer could be looking at huge number of suppliers. The secret in
selecting these specialist applications is to have a comprehensive specification
prepared beforehand.

There are specialist facilities to help with this selection. It’s not easy
finding the ideal solution ­ but there is help at hand.

Business software artillery

Where to go for business software information

The conundrum for customers wanting to buy these specialist business systems
is ‘how to find them?’ Typical software shows and exhibitions, such as
Softworld, specialise in product sectors like Accounting & Finance and HR
& Payroll. These exhibitions, the main showcase for business systems in the
UK, allow delegates to attend short demonstrations of a wide range of
applications (

Many of the software selection sites, like Accounting & Finance 365,
specialise in solutions for small, mid-range and corporate solutions, but tend
to be dominated by the leading suites of applications

Vertical markets are served by Evaluation Centre’s web-site but the range of
vertical markets is not as comprehensive as customers may require

The ICAEW has a software accreditation scheme and is currently developing a
software directory. It has extended the scheme from typical accounting products
to e-commerce, document management etc (

Computing Market Intelligence provides a comprehensive list of IT suppliers.
It can be searched for vertical applications.

The fail-safe for all specialist enquiries is to use one of the main web
search-engines like Google or MSN. You get a lot of rubbish with the search, but
there may be some nuggets.

BASDA provides a booklet on Selecting a Business System which can be
downloaded from its web-site In this booklet it explains how to write
a request for Information (RFI) that will enable the customer to simply specify
its requirements. The RFI can be sent out to five to 10 suitable suppliers, in
order to evaluate their products.

Dennis Keeling is a business software analyst and
co-founded BASDA

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