Why the nature of business applications makes long-term partnerships indispensable

A one-off project approach to developing digital business applications is no longer in keeping with the times. Digital business applications need to be constantly adapted to new requirements. They must enable different business ideas to be trialed and competitors’ good ideas to be adopted swiftly. Isolated, lockable projects are not a suitable response to this requirement. Both principals and IT service providers should therefore endeavor to find suitable partners for long-term cooperation arrangements.  

The service sector centered round individual application development has many faces. Different providers with the widest range of business models and organizational forms are established in the market. Customers have any number of partners from which to choose: from personnel service providers specialized in expert recruitment via pure and often SME project specialists to world-encompassing IT consulting groups.

In spite of the different approaches that providers adopt, managing software projects continues to be governed by a central attitude. Many providers deliver projects – due in part to tender specifications – along the lines of “we sell a project, design the software and are then finished.” Development processes for digital business applications are designed accordingly as individual isolated projects with clearly defined tasks, and collaboration between principal and service provider is limited from the outset to a specific time frame. This approach, in my view, is wrong. There may well be scenarios in which a short-term one-off project makes sense, such as developing a driver. But in my opinion a mindset that sets the isolated one-off project as the standard runs counter to the fundamental character of digital business applications.

In contrast to building a house, which after a construction phase that is as long as it is expensive can be handed over key-ready and then needs only a janitor or a committed home-owner to clear up the worst of the mess, developing a business application is in my experience never entirely finished. Quite the opposite: successful applications lead a life of their own. They do so mainly because the principal’s business also lives and is subject to constant change. These changes regularly make fresh demands on the systems that the software must take into account by means of further development.

This phenomenon is by no means limited to certain industries. A Web shop may need to be adapted to deal with constantly changing customer demand or an eGovernment portal may need to continually integrate new statutory framework conditions. All software is based on dynamics that require constant further development. In addition,  technical innovations and security loopholes require regular updates. In a nutshell, successful applications that are used on a daily basis must be further maintained and developed in order to fulfill their purpose.

Successful IT projects never come to an end

In view of these central characteristics of the application development process the myth that the development of business-critical applications is coming to a close is in my opinion one of the IT industry’s most blatant lies. Yet this myth continues to be widespread and repeatedly leads on the principal’s part to projects being designed and managed less than optimally and to erroneous return-on-investment calculations being made. Customers frequently base these calculations on maintaining a static, constant application. As noted above, however, no application that is successful is static. One might even say that software can only be static if there are no innovations in either the industry or the technology.

What, then, is to take the place of the isolated, standalone project if it does not correspond to the true nature of business applications and their development? At present, more and more companies feel as a consequence that they need to set up in-house departments to develop the software required. At first glance this is understandable. In this way specialized departments can rely on having a constant contact who is highly familiar with the specifics of the company’s business and the software used.

This kind of approach builds on the treasure trove of experience that in-house departments have at their disposal. Further collaboration in partnership between in-house IT departments and external IT providers facilitates the transfer of valuable experience gained in cooperation by the IT service provider with its other customers. Appropriate expertise from other industries can often even be incorporated in this collaboration. That is why, in my view, long-term partnerships between the principal and an external IT project specialist are the best way to do justice to the requirements of successful software development.

Projects can as I see it be regarded as the beginning of a possible long-term partnership. Within this clearly defined framework both sides can check whether they are a good match at the personal and cultural level and share a common view of the software development process. On this basis a trusting partnership on equal terms can take shape over time as the IT partner learns more and more about the customer’s application and business world. Projects as such are anything but outmoded – unlike the focus of application development on individual, isolated projects that must be profitable as an absolute precondition.