The short answer to why corporate software costs so much is that implementing it takes so long, even if everything goes perfectly, which happens exactly as often as Haley’s Comet passing through our skies. It’s expensive for one reason: specialized, and therefore expensive, skills. It takes expensive skills to:

  • write the software in the first place;
  • modify it to your precise business needs; and
  • install and test it and fix problems before you can use it.

The three biggest cost buckets of a software investment are implementation, software modifications, and the cost of delays or disruption to the business.

What is “implementation”? It is the process of making your business function using the new software, or “integrating” the software into your business, however you choose to look at it. Companies have different philosophies about this; some insist the software must be modified to accommodate the way the business functions; others believe in keeping the software as “vanilla” as possible by changing processes to fit the way the software was designed to work.

There is probably a happy medium.  I think the more you modify a program the more trouble you can expect.  It is not unusual to spend a (low) percentage of the project cost on modifications.

“Implementation” is also the process of matching each step in your business process to corresponding steps in the software. A business “process” is usually something like “ship a customer order” or “receive a shipment from a supplier.”

There might be 100 or so distinct business processes in a company, each with five to eight steps or transactions involved, so a software implementation could involve matching all of those 500 to 800 steps or transactions to the new software, and that takes time, knowledge of your business, and knowledge of the new software.

That’s why implementations are expensive: high cost per hour multiplied by many hours.

But if a perfect project is expensive, imagine how expensive a delayed or failed project can be. Failure is the norm, according to some studies, defined as over budget, not meeting implementation dates, or not delivering functionality as expected.

I would add to that list, from personal experience, failure also includes unexpected business disruption, like temporarily shutting down a manufacturing plant or shipping to your customers a day late. So the fact that software implementations are perceived to be wildly expensive is not just because software implementations are wildly expensive anyway – they also have a high failure rate, which only adds to the cost.