Pure-Play CRM Vendors: Choose an Integrated or Best-of-Breed Solution?

  • Written By: Randy Garland
  • Published: September 5 2001

Pure-Play CRM Vendors:

Choose an Integrated or Best-of-Breed Solution?
R. Garland - September 5, 2001


There are a LOT of CRM vendors. If you count the pure-play Integrated CRM vendors and niche, or, fill-the-cracks vendors, there at least fifty from which to choose. Should you go with a one-source solution, reducing the need for integration with other corporate data sources, or go with a best-of-breed approach, getting the best in each category but being left with standalone applications that must be integrated? Every vendor, of course, has their own opinion. And, of course, we have ours.

The Integrated Solution 

You'll read plenty, as you scan around the web, from both independent analysts as well as the large integrated-CRM software vendors, that integration is the Holy Grail. Why? Because companies are wary of spending two years or more trying to link disparate systems within their own companies, let alone deal with the push which is on to allow both customers on the front-end and suppliers on the back-end to see and interact with their data.

What IT department in the world, short of an IBM or Microsoft (or maybe an Amazon, which had and still has plenty of cash), can afford the time, manpower, and skill to: 1) learn multiple systems; 2) learn a language that will tie these systems together, and; 3) keep it all running on multiple OS's, or on multiple networks?

Come, come to the oasis of Nortel (Clarify), or PeopleSoft, or, the current King of the CRM Integration hill, Siebel. Ahhhh. That feels better, doesn't it?

Enter the kingdom. Become 'Clarified.' Sure, it'll cost you many camels to enter, and you'll need to rely on the big CRM vendor to do all that messy integration for you, but you've been promised Time To Market, a smaller IT investment, happier users because of smoothly-flowing interfaces and access to information, and, ultimately, happy customers, who have multi-channel access to help and information, 24 hours a day. Beautiful.

The Best-of-Breed Players 

Oh, no, say the Best-of-Breeders such as some still-independent Business Intelligence companies like Business Objects and Cognos, and e-Business and webification products such as Right Now! Technologies, or partial-story vendors such as Kana or eGain. They claim that users should be wary of an all-Oracle, "one-stop shop" approach, which is all things to everyone, but not the best to anyone.

They want you to lead with your business processes, which closely align with your business strategy, then pick and choose those applications that meet your specifications the closest, and unite them through your own integration. And, they say, those integration techniques are getting easier.

Old-style integration, within the realm of EAI (Enterprise Application Integration), called for database-to-database coding for the batch transition of information between systems. Or it called for message-based brokering, where a message broker would step in and let you send data from a given transaction to another application, for close to real time processing. Or it's now calling for what's (confusingly) being called a brokered integration solution. With this new approach, a central integration hub is built, and all the logic that's required to integrate applications is developed and managed within this broker's interface instead of out at the tens of point-to-point interfaces. Companies such as TIBCO, Vitria, and Oberon are players in this space.

Several New Interesting Developments 

Other vendors, still, are recognizing the dilemma that companies face and are going into business as 'BSPs', or, Business Service Providers. They're in a new class of service provider that focuses solely on providing business infrastructure. They claim to combine best-of-breed software with custom technology and integration services. Let a BSP host your suite of applications, and they can have you up and running in 60 to 90 days and can incorporate new technologies or update existing applications more quickly than can a typical in-house IT staff. According to Rene L. White, the senior vice president of marketing for eConvergent Inc., they can blend 12 or more off-the-shelf applications with their own integration framework, known as emerge 3.0, to create a multifaceted but seamless e-CRM environment.

The second movement comes from the software vendors themselves, realizing and accepting the fact that customers might not want to put all their eggs in one basket. Donna Fluss, a research director at the Gartner Group, believes that customers want to do less integration, but still want best of breed. The solution? Over the long term, she predicts, e-CRM vendors will be forced to create products that support pluggable components, so customers can have both best-of-breed and integrated suites, but she doesn't expect that movement until 2003.

The third movement, designed to promote the second one, above, is independent software vendors that are defining integration interfaces - a common language - in which different applications could speak to each other if they choose to. Put a bit more technically, they provide infrastructures to encapsulate applications within objects, and allow the objects to communicate with each other. As long as the interfaces between the objects remain the same, no changes need to be made in how applications communicate between themselves.

A company called ObjectSpace has a product on the market called Voyager. According to their web site, the Voyager package includes an Application Server, a pure Enterprise Java Beans (EJB) environment that allows for the de-coupling of application logic from systems programming logic. With extensions, and what they call JGL libraries providing more than 50 generic algorithms, the solution provides a common language, and some advanced words within that language, to the software vendors, to allow each to come together and communicate.

Our Take 

Things are certainly a mess, and getting messier, quickly. With integrated solutions, its true that much integration is already done for you. But don't think that you still don't have a lot more work to do to mold that one-size-fits-all package to meet your own, individual corporate needs. The old ratio of about 1:3 or 1:4, cost of software package to cost of implementation still holds. Remember, too, the following things about integrated packages:

How nimble will those players be when new technologies arise? If they have a NIH (Not Invented Here) mentality infused in their very blood, well, you'll be late to the technology party, and with a potentially inferior solution as well. You're locked into their solution, and their pacing. It's dangerous to put such important tools in the hands of one vendor, and be at their whim for fixes, updates, and new technology developments.

Also, do you want an outside vendor to have so much control over so much of your company's data? And just how flexible will they allow you to be in customizing their product to meet your needs? Oracle's Larry Ellison has publicly stated that he hates the fact that users modify his code. Users should just accept Oracle's "vanilla" version, along with its inherent user-interface and workflow model, and shape their company's behavior to fit the software. Huh? No wonder Larry is the second-most-hated CEO in software-dom (Mr. Redmond is the clear leader). Larry has the gall to tell you to not touch his code, and to do things his way or not at all.

Even Siebel Systems suffers a bit from Larry-ism. They insist that you use their own tools, and not write custom code, if you want flip-the-switch updates from version to version. Otherwise, converting between versions is not so easy.

On the flip side, with best-of-breed solutions, we must admit that integration is painful. Listen to David Linthicum, CTO of SAGA Software, Inc., for one fifty minute session at a CRM conference and you'll realize how immature, complicated, and confusing the EAI marketplace still is. He'll talk to you about four different types of EAI (Data level, Application interface level, Method level, and User Interface level); he'll tell you that EAI is expensive; and he'll explain why the existing EAI methods fall short of their promises (security issues; non-real-time data transfer; customer coding requirements, among other issues). As an aside, for in-depth understanding of EAI, Mr. Linthicum has written two excellent books that we recommend: Enterprise Application Integration (Addison-Wesley, 1999, ISBN 0201615835), and B2B Application Integration: e-Business-Enable Your Enterprise (Addison-Wesley, 2000, ISBM 0201709368).

User Recommendations 

Do your homework. Analyze and prioritize your business needs. Match the top two or three business requirements to the best-fit solution that exists today, and make it happen, quickly. Expect that the solution you implement today will have about a three year lifespan before new technologies and capabilities will require re-work. If Siebel has the two or three top features or functions that satisfy your most pressing business needs, go with it. If two best-of-breed solutions satisfy those pressing business needs, find a top-notch systems integrator, integrate, and move forward.

The bottom line is that you need to do intense due diligence, by matching your top several requirements with what exists today, not what might exist on the horizon tomorrow, since things are changing so rapidly, and consolidation may mean that independent vendors go away. Make significant changes happen in phases within 90 days, and expect lifelong changes and adaptations, as your most pressing business needs change, and technology advances. And move quickly. As the inside flap of Linthicum's B2B book states: "Woe to the executive who tarries!"

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