Are ERP Software Vendors Messing with Your Head? (The Fine Art of Interpreting White Papers)

  • Written By: David Clark
  • Published On: October 30 2009



(Scroll down for my list of Top 10 ERP White Paper Buzzwords!)

I first published a version of this post a few years ago. Sad to say, not much has changed since then…

Imagine that you're at the research stage of an enterprise resource planning (ERP) selection process. You're looking to get a handle on the scope of the project, and an idea of potential solutions and approaches.

Or maybe you're at the shortlist stage of your software selection project, and you're looking for collateral information on the vendors to get a sense of their overall vision, their development road maps, and their commitment to clients.

How are you going to do all this? Well, white papers can help. But only if you know how to parse the buzzwords and marketing jargon.

What's a White Paper? No, Really.

A white paper is a document that comprehensively discusses a technology or product, and often deals with particular problems that many companies may be facing.

That's the idea, anyway. It's also a way for software vendors to pitch a product to prospective customers.

Try this experiment: go to TEC’s library of white papers. Search for the phrases “coder's idea of a joke,” “financial sinkhole,” or “buy this and your career will rocket straight down the corporate ladder.”

The search engine will rebuke you with a rather startled “your search did not match any documents.”  Naturally, ERP software vendors are going to use a bunch of feel-good apple-pie words, such as “scalable,” “cutting edge,” and “synergy.”

I'll get to the Top 10 ERP White Paper Buzzwords in a second, but first, consider these words of caution: Just because a vendor produces a polished, glitzy white paper doesn't mean its product is similarly polished. All it means is that the vendor has an accomplished marketing department, whose mantra is “We've got the cure. Now let's hype the disease.”

Your mission is to go beyond the hype and understand not only the disease and cure, but also the symptoms, treatment side effects, alternative approaches, and the potential for relapse.

That's why I'm presenting you with a handy ERP buzzword translator. You may wish to refer to it the next time you read a white paper.

Top 10 ERP White Paper Buzzwords

ERP Buzzword #10: competitive advantage

How vendors use it

Vendors throw this phrase around like rice at a wedding. However, also like rice at a wedding, it hurts when you get it in your eyes.

Why you should point and laugh

Technology alone won't generate a competitive advantage. That's your job. If a new enterprise system can help, great. But there's no such thing as a magic bullet.

ERP Buzzword #9: full-featured

How vendors use it

A full-featured software application is, well, full of features, right? Isn't that like a real estate agent trying to sell you a full-roofed house? No. See below.

Why you should run for cover

It's conceivable that the ERP software products on your selection shortlist have all the features and functions you require, straight out of the box. In which case, they can justifiably be described as full-featured.

However, a) that's unlikely, and b) full-featured doesn't mean “zero configuration”—configuration being one of the most vital steps of any software implementation, and a step that “full-featured” glibly glosses over.

Furthermore, your business model might not tolerate “software bloat” very well. If a software product is being positioned as a full-featured application, you may wish to consider whether it really addresses your needs.

ERP Buzzword #8: dynamic IT marketplace

Why vendors use it

This term is tacit acknowledgement that you are faced with a rich and volatile landscape of technology choices.

Why you should nod politely and back away

“Dynamic IT marketplace” is also industry code for “there are so many mergers, acquisitions, and busts in this industry that I have no idea who's signing my next paycheck.”

Be smart. Ensure that any software purchase contract you sign includes a road map for future maintenance, service, and development.

ERP Buzzword #7: superior functionality

Superior to what? The beta version? Move along, nothing to see here.

ERP Buzzword #6: user-friendly

Why vendors use it

Some user, somewhere, saw the graphical user interface (GUI), and was, like, OMG!1!!.

Why they shouldn't

When vendors use this term, they may not be thinking of Cranky McSnarlPants over in your human resources (HR) department—you know, the one who kicks up a snit storm every time you try something new, user-friendly or not.

Two words for you: user buy-in. Get it. “User-friendly” is a promise, not a quality.

ERP Buzzword #5: scalability

How vendors use it

“This software application scales effortlessly.”

Why you should get some hard numbers from the vendor

If your strategic plans include dramatic growth, you may want to ask the vendor to provide synonyms for the word “effortlessly.” Usually, the words “server acquisition” will figure prominently, by which time you've figured out that “effortlessly” does not mean “inexpensively.”

ERP Buzzword #4: flexibility

How vendors use it

“Flexible solutions.”

Why you should stay the course

My cat is flexible. I, on the other hand, am about as flexible as my last 19 parking tickets. Between these two extremes, there are software applications. Flexible is a relative term, and you may need more of it than the vendor can deliver. Reserve judgment until you've conducted a thorough demo and analysis of the product's real-world capabilities.

ERP Buzzword #3: holistic

How vendors use it

Holistic = Good.

Why you and the software vendor should have a serious meditation together

A man walks into a Zen pizza parlor. “Hey pal,” he says, “make me one with everything.” That joke is about as relevant to the software selection process as the word “holistic” is in marketing collateral.

Usually used in reference to the ability of ERP applications to link all company processes in a unified system, holistic is one of those plastic words that becomes more impressive the more it's used, especially if you put the word paradigm next to it. That doesn't mean it's substantive.

The words you want to see instead are “all company processes” near the word “integrated,” if that's the kind of package you're looking to purchase.

ERP Buzzword #2: cutting-edge

Why vendors use it

Because. Just because.

Why you should get all edgy

“Cutting edge” is a very clever way to say “New! Possibly improved! And not-quite-fully-QA-approved-just-yet-we're-still-working-on-that!” Don't go there. Yes, yes, there may be some cases where you absolutely need a feature that has only just been developed. But proceed with caution.

ERP Buzzword #1: synergy

Why vendors use it

Because it makes you feel waaaaaaarm all over. Doesn't it?

Why you should get your snark on

Merriam-Webster defines synergy as “a mutually advantageous conjunction … of distinct business participants or elements.”

That's quite a mouthful. If you parse it and plug it into the software selection context, it generally means that software modules are going to cooperate, "talk" to one another, etc.

Which is, uh, what you thought you were going to pay for in the first place. Synergy is not a bonus feature.

So, Are White Papers Just a Waste of Your Time?

No. Strip away the marketing fluff with my handy buzzword translator, and you'll see the content as it should have been—the draft that got sent to the marketing department, and died a horrible, lingering, value-added death.

White papers can provide invaluable insight into business problems and solutions. They often represent months of intensive research by industry experts and analysts. What they should do is present useful information to help you as you go forward in your software evaluation.

A white paper should promote credibility by approaching a problem with objective analysis, and uncovering numerous approaches to this problem. It should then make a strong argument for the solution it presents, allowing you to decide based on the information given. White papers ought to inform, enlighten, and convince you. And the best ones do.

Have a look at TEC's 25 Most Popular White Papers—they've been selected by your peers. You'll see what I mean.

Any other ERP buzzwords that really get your goat? Share them with me in the comments below!
 
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