The Multi-Headed Dragon

tiamatWhen talking large enterprise IT environments, digital backbones, and fountains/sources of truth, it’s not long before the conversation turns towards either Product Lifecycle Management (PLM) or Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP).  Both PLM and ERP visions are positioned by their corresponding champions as the indispensable key element of the digital enterprise.  But on planet reality, neither vision proves wholly sufficient, end to end.  And since both PLM and ERP have differing centers of power, most enterprises of size end up with both.  You need two coins to continue.  The backbone of the enterprise belongs to a multi-headed dragon.  Please do not taunt happy-fun multi-headed dragon.

To grasp the problem fully, requires understanding the driving visions behind the acronyms.  It’s important to emphasize that both PLM and ERP are business visions, and not the specific software manifestations thereof.  The ERP and PLM visions originated from different parts of the enterprise and have different foci, however there is significant overlap both thematically and functionally.  PLM having been birthed from Product Data Management (PDM) and CAD retains a product centric focus.  In contrast, ERP is drawn originally from work orders and supply chain activities, resulting logically in a transaction centric focus.  Too often we erect and/or stretch the limits of either vision based on what available software does (or is marketed as), ignoring the concept behind the software.  You can blame marketing for that one.  The software providers on both sides, secure in their expertise in the core of each separate vision, are now competing for the same dollars in the middle, and redefining the limits is an artifact of this ongoing turf war.  The result is needless confusion for most.

But PLM and ERP don’t play well together – because of their differing foci they are championed and implemented from different points in the enterprise at different times.  They answer to different masters.  And often, they aren’t remotely on each other’s RADAR.  Blip.  Blip.  Blip…  In many ways, Enterprise IT has been molded in the image of the very silos they were meant to replace.

And that’s where PLM and ERP often have their first awkward meeting within an enterprise… in that contested territory right between the two largest dragon heads.  Where ownership is disputed and concepts about how things should operate vary significantly.  It’s usually within some conversation about EBOM/MBOM conversion or what have you, and it’s guaranteed to have copious amounts of fire, ash, and a burninated knight or two.  And this happens at a critical inflection point in the product life-cycle: the transformation from a product centric focus to a transaction-centric focus.  While the prime focus shifts, both transactional and product models still have relevance, but the question of ownership clouds all.

Think about it, how efficient is a two-headed dragon?  Both dragon heads think they are the one in control.  The only time they can agree is when it’s time to devour IT budgets.

And it can be worse.  If other tools such as CRM or MRO join the fray, and if perhaps a legacy PLM/ERP system is coexisting with a replacement, before you know it you have your very own pet Tiamat.  Except Tiamat is a rather evil dragon deity, and generally refuses to behave (especially at dinner parties).  Before you know it, you have enough digital backbones to open a Halloween store.

Consequently, integration is often accomplished after the fact – once systems have been well established and/or entrenched in their respective silos.  The PLM/ERP digital divide is an arbitrary one largely handled by clunky custom bridges or more robust yet complicated Enterprise Service Buses (ESB)’s.  It’s rarely efficient, often a bit of a nightmare, and hard to deal with over time as software transforms in multiple directions.

In Elysium (where Jodie Foster lives), there would be one system managing enterprise data with multiple interfaces depending on whether the user is more product (PLM) centric or transaction (ERP) centric – making the distinction largely meaningless.  Of course it’s not Utopia, and there’s not one product or architecture that can handle it all elegantly, so we compromise with a heterogeneous mix of federated systems.

The very concept of one unified system does tend to make heads spin because of the pure idealism and little practicality behind it.  Besides, the simple dependence on a single vendor would be troublesome should that relationship turn sour.  But a more important point is tools must be adapted to their specific use.  After all, your MS Office suite wouldn’t be right without Word, Excel, and Powerpoint as complimentary but distinct products, right?   How workable would one office do-all product be? And would you call it Wexcelpoint or Powordcel?  Maybe Expoinord?  That’s a perfectly sensible argument, where tools are specially honed with purpose, and so it should be with the enterprise.  But that does ignore a vital fact in this example, which is that Office is usually bought, managed implemented, and utilized in a very tight package with distinct modules.  Enterprise implementations are rarely ever coordinated and software selection rarely even happens at the same time.

The single solution is a wild idea I admit – but not one that should be totally discarded, imagine a federated or hybrid combination of relational DB’s and key/value stores optimized and aligned with specific enterprise tasks.  I would love to see some interesting concepts that don’t treat the PLM/ERP as two segregated islands with traffic in-between, but rather a truly unified (and singular) digital backbone.  Sometimes we have to think a little crazy to get the innovation going.  My prices are insane!  The point is the status quo is driving complexity to a breaking point and we’ll quickly get reach a limit where only a handful of companies can afford it all.  If we’re not already there.

So, what do you think?  And what would you call an Excel/Word/Powerpoint mashup?