These days it’s becoming more and more common for software providers to do their own implementation and integration for the solutions they sell, instead of partnering with outside service firms to provide these services to their customers.

In the past, end-user customers would buy the first generation of applications and install them. But as their systems grew in size and complexity, they soon found that data sharing and other back-end connections were incomplete. As a result, there would be all these application “silos, and none of the data works together,” said Tom Eid, VP of enterprise application software at Gartner Research. “So a lot of the larger [end-user customers] are looking to make the different applications work together in a more complete or more solutions-driven approach.”

Software providers know their particular domain area very well and, though they may not know all the specific capabilities of a given customer, the providers’ in-house professional service teams often know the best practices for implementing their integrated solutions.

“A lot of them will have their own templates and solution kits and APIs that they’ve developed,” he said. “So they know how to implement (their integrated solutions).”

“Integrated solutions” is the key phrase, according to Eid, since standalone applications do not require much more than simple customer service to resolve problems after purchase, he said. “That’s an important part of the trend, in that the more that the technology itself can be deployed as not just a simple ‘solution,’ but really more of an integrated solution, then you’re not looking at what we call off-the-shelf types of software.”

Software providers don’t provide implementation or integration services for off-the-shelf applications that don’t require a lot of customization, or for fairly horizontal applications that can’t be modified, such as e-mail, instant messaging, Web conferencing, word processing or spreadsheet applications, said Eid.

The more that the technologies require data sharing or integration with existing systems, or are being purchased as an augmentation to an existing system, the more customers need software vendors to come in and provide implementation and integration services on a short-term, fairly fixed-rate basis, he said. “They can be in and out in a fairly short period of time,” he said, “and have them running up to a level of stability in the software.”

The most common examples of integrated applications for which software providers implement these services are the packaged applications that can be transactional in nature. “Things like ERP, supply chain, end-content management, CRM and business intelligence are the most common,” Eid said. “A lot of things around what we call master data management and data-warehousing types of projects—ones that require some integration with workflow or process management or policy management. That’s what the vendors are really good at.”

Alexsys is one such workflow solution provider that lately finds itself providing these implementation and integration services more and more to customers. CEO Rich Bianchi said it is easy to do these days thanks to video conferencing. “We travel here and there, but the vast majority we can handle with GoToMeeting,” he said. “Or we come in, and either they drive or they give us the controls while they watch, and we do it for them.”

It’s not just startups or small companies that are asking for implementation or integration services, according to Bianchi. “What we’ve seen is, even our more sophisticated customers are suddenly asking us for more help than they had in the past,” he said. “And I think this is because they have less IT people. You can imagine that happening in today’s economy, right? I can think of a lot of different examples (of companies).”
Alexsys has provided implementation and integration services for a variety of companies lately, including a large manufacturer of kitchen and bath fixtures. “We went in there and basically did soup-to-nuts for them,” said Bianchi. “They laid out the requirements, and then we basically configured our software—which we generally don’t do—completely into their application.

“We designed the forms, and then we helped them lay it onto their system. They had some IT support to put it on the proper servers with the proper firewalls because that’s usually internally managed. Then we deployed.”

Bianchi also said his company is currently doing solutions for the US Air Force. “There are a number of solutions that we’re putting in place now. They’re using our Team (software), and we’re building basically a custom Web portal application,” he said.

“So there is Team on the back end and there are some Team users, but the vast majority of users are just coming into a Web portal; they don’t know it’s Team or anything else. But the advantage of it is that you can do the whole thing with basically point-and-click rule technology, and you’re not writing a lot of code. But you would be amazed at how much complexity there is in filling out these forms.”

Software providers want to make sure their software gets implemented fairly quickly, but whether or not they implement it themselves depends on the nature of the project and how the customer is looking to implement it, according to Gartner’s Eid.

“If they’re taking it more on a project-by-project basis, they’ll usually look to the software companies to help with the implementation,” he said. “But if it’s much broader, like a whole new implementation or re-architecture, or a much more extensive project or larger implementation, that’s where the professional services firms come in.”

Exceptions to the rule
There are exceptions to this trend of software providers helping their customers with implementation and integration, such as when solutions have a lot of regulations tied to them. In these cases, providers may not be equipped to handle these details—or may not want to.

“Vendors have to walk a fairly defined line between where they’re willing to work on particular projects and do the implementation, to when does it then become a real professional services-driven type of a project,” said Tom Eid, VP of enterprise application software at Gartner Research. “So the more that it requires extensive policy or regulation knowledge, or specialized vertical industry or standards knowledge, then they’ll usually want to work with an outside partner (such as an professional services firm).”