Get to know your software before saying goodbye!

If, as the old adage says, you’re too busy chopping wood to sharpen your axe you could be failing to get the most out of your software or spending money unnecessarily.


If you’ve read even one of my articles over the past few years, you’ll know I’m an advocate of companies building the ability to flex and respond to change quickly and decisively. But that does not mean indiscriminately throwing out the old and implementing the new. Today, I am debating that when it comes to replacing software, we should be taking a beat and assessing whether our current software is as irredeemable as you think it is, before running full tilt towards something new and expensive.


Chopping and changing software every time something doesn’t work as well as it used to or when you need new capabilities is often not the best way to drive a return on your software investment. Nor is it a good way to save time and money in the long run.


Think of it like this. Before you buy something such as critical enterprise software, you do your research, correct? You work out how much the software will cost you to acquire, how much it will cost you to maintain and what the ROI is likely to be. You then decide whether the purchase is a good idea or not, and you either go ahead and buy it, or move on to the next option.


Unfortunately, once the buy decision has been made and the software has been implemented, all too often, things go off track. Once the software has been installed, probably including customisation, and the initial training has been completed, it just gets forgotten about and is left to chug along in the background. The maintenance phase of software is overlooked amidst the hurly-burly of daily business life, where we are all working as hard as we can to keep ahead of our email inboxes and the rapidly evolving marketplace.


And, as we all know only too well, if something works it gets overlooked, prompting the adage “if it aint broke don’t fix it!”. However, the flipside of this is another adage: “you’re too busy chopping wood to sharpen your axe”. This is a reminder that in the long run, it is worth taking the time to stop what you are doing and perform maintenance-type tasks. Indeed, this time out can increase your overall productivity. In this case, this means that neglecting software maintenance can have dire consequences for your expected ROI, not to mention the efficiency and productivity of the software and your users.


It is worth pointing out that software maintenance goes beyond ensuring updates are rolled out: obviously being on the most up-to-date version of your software is important (and with cloud services typically happens automatically). Software maintenance includes understanding what additional features and functionality are included in those updates, how your organisation can benefit from them, and if you need to change how you work to make the most of this functionality. These new, optimised features are basically freebies that drive even further ROI from your initial investment.


Software maintenance also includes ongoing learning for your users so that they can both keep up to date with these new features and find out about pre-existing functionality that they have not yet had a need for. This ongoing, just-in-time learning is also key to maximising your ROI (and ensuring your teams are working most productively).


Unfortunately, users typically never use more than a fraction of any software’s functionality. The rule of thumb in the IT world is that 80% of your users only use 20% of your features. A 2015 study into the Enron spreadsheets and email archive demonstrates an even more extreme gap. The research showed that 76% of the spreadsheets used only 15, out of around 500, of Excel’s functions. Users take from the initial training what they need and forget the rest. This knowledge attrition is exacerbated when new team members are trained by existing users, who only show them how they use the system, including, potentially, out-of-date functionality and ways of working.


Eventually, and inevitably, you arrive at the conclusion that the software is no longer fit for purpose and can’t do what you need it to do, and so you go out to the market to source an alternative. All very well, if probably unnecessary in many cases, but what happens in a year or two’s time, when this pattern of neglecting software maintenance has continued and you’re again left thinking your software is past its sell-by-date.


Surely common sense and a desire to get the most out of our existing investments should prompt a change to this approach around software maintenance. This can both ensure that you are maximising the returns from your existing software and that you are making sound business decisions when you do decide to replace software. One tactic you can deploy to achieve these outcomes is a formalised, documented annual software health check, where you work with your vendor to ensure your software is up to date, still correctly configured and used for your needs, and that you are using the software to its fullest capability. Hand-in-hand with this goes ensuring your users are familiar with new and newly required features and supported with ongoing training to ensure the knowledge gap doesn’t reappear. This is particularly important in remote working environments, where you can’t just tap a colleague on the shoulder and ask them how to do something.


Of course, software that is no longer fit for purpose because your organisation and/or the market has changed and the software hasn’t kept up with that, needs to go. Sometimes it might be the case that you have to throw out the axe altogether and invest in a chainsaw. But, if that is the outcome, at least be sure that you are making the decision based on complete and accurate information, and that you have the structures and processes in place to ensure you don’t end up in the same situation in two- or three-years’ time.


As published in AccountingWeb - 26 April 2022