‘Best of Breed’ or ‘All in One’ – Our CTO’s own introspection journey

Founder Ian Cray ponders his own experience of introspection and exploring bias to make one of the most important decisions as CTO of Clekt – and why opting for the solution that wasn’t his initial preference yielded best results.

The Importance of Internal Systems

When I had the idea to start Clekt, I decided that my role should be that of CTO, not CEO. Part of my reasoning was that this would allow me to focus on the development of our main product, the ‘Clekt Enterprise Data Hub’. During the early days of turning the idea into a business, I didn’t give too much thought to the full scope of my new role as there were far more pressing matters at hand.

Once I was happy that the idea for the business was sound and Andy Tudor had agreed to come on board as CEO, I sat down and thought about the areas of responsibility I would most enjoy having. The first two were easy to come up with as they are the things I am most passionate about; developing the platform and data in the form of our internal MI. The third area, Internal Systems, was not born of passion – but of a recognition that it ought to sit with me. It is this third area that this article covers.

The process of deciding what systems to use to run the business is not something that I jump out of bed early to work on so I thought I would break the process down.

Step 1 was to think of any obvious high-level requirements, and I had two; everything has to be in the Cloud as we have no computers in the office, and all systems that hold data must have an API of some sort.

Step 2 was to list the functions within the business that would benefit from using an application of some kind and requirements from the primary users.

Step 3 was to decide if we should look at ‘Best of Breed’ systems, or an ‘All in One’ application.

So what is ‘Best of Breed’? Best Of Breed systems are literally the best your money can buy – but they tend to be available in isolation as specialist, standalone products. ‘All in One’ systems have multiple functions, and provide that ease that comes with a centralised system.

The first two steps were straightforward, but the third not so much. For this step I decided to think about three areas; firstly an introspective look at myself, secondly looking back at the systems my clients have used over the years and thirdly, what I did in my last company.

Introspection

Why introspection? Well, when we look for answers to questions, we all have biases, both conscious and unconscious. These lead us towards the answer we want as opposed to the correct answers. For my current quest, I wanted to see if I could identify some of my own biases to make my decision more objective.

My immediate thought was that I like gadgets, especially those with multiple functions. In the 70’s I was given a Bic 4 Colour Biro, the one with separate selectors for blue, red, green and black ink. Even after 45 years, I clearly remember being fascinated by the efficiency of only needing one pen – why weren’t all pens made like this? In my defence, I was right to be impressed as they are still available today almost completely unchanged!

In the 90’s I went backpacking for two years, and the most useful thing I took was a Swiss Army knife. I am not sure if I used all the options on it, but I do know I used it every day.

Today I have an iPhone. I don’t need a separate calculator, compass, GPS for the car, radio, spirit level (yes, I do use that!), recorder, camera, camcorder, alarm clock, torch and so on. It is the epitome of multi-function gadgets. I don’t even need to take a wallet out most of the time.

No surprises then that I chose an all in one system when I started my last company!

Clients

Whilst mentally reviewing systems which my clients had used it quickly became apparent that none of them used ‘All in One’ applications. They all had separate finance, CRM, HR, Time and Project Management, Marketing and Reporting systems. They didn’t use reporting tools to do ETL or project planning in finance systems. This was especially interesting as it contrasted with my own preference for All In One systems.

Last Company

As mentioned earlier, I used an All in One system when I started my last business. Looking back, it is not hard to see my biases coming into play once again! However, unlike in my private life, I ended up replacing the original system with multiple ‘Best of Breed’ applications.

Decision Time

So it would appear that while my biases are strong, my experience of my clients’ decisions contradict them. In the end, the decision was not a hard one – I’d had a recent, negative experience of the ‘All in One’ option. So ‘Best of Breed’ it would be.

I ought to have been content at this point as I had made my decision in a reasoned, structured and rational way…

…But

It niggled! I do not like inconsistencies. Why does the same approach not work both at home and in business? Was it my personal bias protesting as I stepped out of my comfort zone?

The answer came from the second step, where I spoke to those who would be using the systems. These people were experienced specialists in their fields. Using the iPhone analogy, they were professional photographers. I am happy with the snaps of my kids over the years, but these specialists wanted a more comprehensive range of lenses, different speed films and more control over aperture and exposure. I have yet to see a professional photographer use an iPhone as their primary camera!

So what is wrong with ‘All in One’ solutions?

Nothing. Like all things tech, there are pros and cons. They work well for some, but not so much for others, especially where specialist support is needed.

The ‘All in One’ solution is a Jack of all trades. In hindsight, this is blindingly obvious; however, there must be a place for them as they appear to be enormously popular. There was an article in Computer Weekly back in the days when it was a printed journal a centimetre thick – that was how we used to find work before the internet! This article was by a project manager who had delivered a significant SAP installation under budget and ahead of time. Rather than change the software to suit the business, he changed the business to suit the software! His rationale was that the majority of the critical players in their field used SAP so the software would have evolved to include all their best practices. Their business differentiator was how they dealt with their clients, not their internal business processes.

So why don’t I change the way we run our business to suit an ‘All in One’ option? In addition to our clients’ preference, in our case, there are two areas where we have particular needs that require ‘Best of Breed’ solutions. Part of our business involves consultancy, and this comes in many forms. It can range from a single day engagement to many months and even years. The types of project can be high-level consultancy, burn down resource pool or large, very detailed development projects. Another part of our business involves the development of our platform internally with resources crossing between the two streams.

The management of our time and resources is critical to our relationship with our clients and as such, is not an anonymous background business process. To date, I have not found any ‘All in One’ systems that can handle this well – even if they claim they can!

All your data in one place

One of the common benefits claimed for ‘All in One’ systems is that all your data is in one place. The concept is a good one and essential for all businesses; however, it cannot be delivered by ‘All in One’ solutions despite the claims they may make. Even if a system genuinely covered every aspect of your business, it would still not be able to hold your external data such as social media, SES information, weather, market information etc. In my experience, none of these systems enable you to ingest and combine external data sources. None of them cover the whole business, so you will always have other systems as well as legacy data and spreadsheets. From a data insight perspective this, for me at least, is a show stopper.

But bringing data together is hard!

It used to be. I am very fortunate in that I work with a pioneering company that has a platform which integrates systems as well as collating all operational and analytics data to allow insight across your whole business!

So despite my initial instincts and reservations, finding a solution to the ‘Best of Breed’ or ‘All In One’ conundrum required me to go against the grain and objectively weigh up the pros and cons of each. My role is to drive the development of the Clekt Enterprise Hub, using it to provide real insight and to integrate any of our ‘Best of Breed’ systems as needed. I concentrate on finding productive and highly efficient solutions for our clients – which often requires me to step out of myself and look for an objective analysis. And in this case as always, I’m so pleased that I did!