Mike Winch is chairman of e-business and commercial systems solutions provider Crimsonwing. The £6m business provides companies and their partners with the tools to connect enterprise systems to B2B and B2C transaction systems.
"This is a totally new market, and people buying software will probably not have heard of most of the vendors, making the issue of software quality even harder than usual," says Winch.
"Payroll is payroll and there are probably no quality issues, but with e-commerce, they are part of the game," he adds. "But as the market is starting to mature and consolidate, the better companies will come through, as opposed to those with pure techies and good ideas, but no business experience."
Large IT suppliers have not necessarily cracked the problem. "Plenty of large vendors have a whole raft of quality procedures and checks in place but they still get it wrong," says Winch. "You would have to say that problems are all part of the job. The real world is never like the test bed, no matter how much time is spent in development and testing. Software will always fall over, whatever you do."
Winch's pragmatic view is based on his 17 years as group IT director at Safeway before he joined Crimsonwing. "Even at a large supermarket chain with huge IT resources, software quality can cause disputes. At that stage, the focus is less on sorting things out than on relationships breaking down."
Winch has his own formula for achieving the best results. "Try to get things right from the start," he advises. This could be one of the reasons why Crimsonwing employs people with previous business experience. "You have to work with customers to find out what they need and pick the right software. And don't bet the business on the software." He says that companies should reduce their risk by not trying to put everything into the software up front. "It's better to work on some core function and get that right." Also, he recommends that users have a realistic development plan because, in his experience, "The initial function is bound to be full of holes."
All of which suggests that no one is going to take a risk with new technology, but Winch says, "I do believe in introducing leading edge technology as early as possible and I support early access programmes." Technology, he explains, can give companies a first-mover advantage. "This requires boldness and there will always be some risk, but picking vendors with business experience that you trust can minimise those risks."
At Safeway, Winch introduced self-scanning in stores before any other UK supermarket retailer and CrimsonWing is now working with IBM to make the technology available to other retailers. Winch explains, "Easi-order is a Web-enabled device that facilitates remote customer ordering and introducing real-time stock analysis into the store. With self-scanning, there is a track record of it working, proof that it brings benefits to the business and most solutions are built on established platforms. I'd advise against fancy programming."
All of which sounds expensive, but Crimsonwing employs around 200 staff who operate between the UK sales and marketing facilities and the company's main solution centre in Malta, where it is the largest IT employer in the private sector. Winch says, "We think we are different from companies whose development resources are 6,000 miles away and where there is limited contact. Malta is relatively close, has a culture that is similar to the UK and developers spend time working over here, cascading knowledge to others."
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