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Comment: New Year, New Platform? Making the business case

Time to re-platform your eCommerce?

So, you squeaked through Black Friday, Cyber Monday, and the Boxing sales on your current solution. And now your New Year resolution for work runs something like: “I’d rather endure 30 successive Christmas days with the relatives than work through another 30 successive peak sale days on our current platform next year. We will re-platform this year.”

The first and most important piece of advice I can give is: start by following the current fashion for spending the remainder of the month off the booze, and then check if you still feel the same way at the beginning of February. And then remember that even when Moses re-platformed the Israelites, using God as his Systems Integrator, he didn’t actually get to see it go live for himself. Like many re-platforming projects, his attempt spent an awful lot of time wandering in circles in the wilderness before his successor eventually managed to get the new system working properly.

The archaeological dig

What’s more, Moses had a pretty good business case for his project: the old system was really unsupportable. In fact, this is one of the very few good arguments for a major re-platforming project, memorably summed up for me a few years ago by a client’s CEO: "Every time I ask for a change to be made to our current system, it’s like sending a team out on an archaeological dig”.

Just occasionally you will be genuinely at the point of obsolescence – your old system can’t support mobile or something like that (why not?) – or possibly more likely, faced with upgrading to version 13.0 because your supplier has finally stopped supporting the version 6.8 that you’ve managed to stay on despite their four years of entreaties to upgrade. In this case you have a genuine “restart vs new-start” business decision to make, in which it is much easier to compare apples with apples.

But far more likely, you have to choose between a solution which, realistically and once the scars of the Christmas peak have started to fade, could be propped up for yet another year, versus a major change. At this point, the archaeological dig argument becomes your chief ally.

Making the business case for change

Arguments about new functionality, or scalability, or resilience, tend not to stand up to close scrutiny. Almost any IT system can be made to do pretty much anything if you try hard enough. What’s more, the default project scope for a re-platforming project should be that on day one it will deliver absolutely zero change in functionality. (For those who would challenge this, the counterargument is best summed up as “Marks and Spencer’s new website”; albeit strategically they had no choice but to move away from outsourcing to Amazon.)

A zero new functionality project will have the lowest risk, and more importantly, be the fastest possible project. This is extremely important because a part of the business case that is often omitted is the soaking-up of time from the existing 'A-team' that are normally dedicated to driving sales for customers. During the project the A-team will be significantly diverted to project-tasks such as functionality-workshops or user-testing, even if you don’t plan for them to be. You should probably take nil sales-growth during the project duration as a safe baseline assumption. Even if you decide on a more ambitious scope than 'no change on day one', splitting the business case into two steps: reaching today’s level; delivering tomorrow’s change, is a helpful structure to think about.

At this point, our archaeological dig returns to the business case. An archaeological dig has a number of unattractive characteristics: it is expensive, slow and tends to take place out of sight. These are the arguments that best form the heart of a solid case for re-platforming, rather than new functionality itself.

To begin with, a new platform, should – after a learning period – be cheaper to support and operate. This is easy to calculate and include in the business case: fewer people or pounds per month.

The core of the argument, however, will be that future change will be easier to do. Either you’ll need less development resource, or you’ll be able to do more with the same amount of resource, because it will be simpler, faster and more transparent. The tricky bit is turning this qualitative argument into a quantitative one for a business case. One approach is to argue that there is a well-quantified ROI on every man-day of development, and either that this ROI will be better on the new system, or will be the same but there’ll be more of it because you have transferred maintenance resource to development resource. An alternative – which only works if your CEO buys into it before trying it out on the finance director – is that sales will grow faster because you’ll be able to do more for customers.

If you spend January doing all these sums, and at the end you still feel convinced that re-platforming is the right thing to do, then the next thing you’re going to need is an RFI to some potential suppliers. We’ll take a look at this in a succeeding article.

Chris Jones is a freelance specialist in multichannel and eCommerce, with extensive senior-level experience as both consultant and hands-on interim. He has worked extensively in both B2B and B2C sectors, and has client engagement experience in 15 countries. He is the author of ‘The Multichannel Retail Handbook’. You can find him at www.redsock.biz