Soliant Consulting: The Workgroup Conundrum

Bob Bowers, CEO It is a common practice for many organizations to try to meet their information-systems needs by buying “canned” solutions off the shelf and adapting them to specific business needs. This is not just due to the market presence of large systems vendors, but also to the fact that custom-building one’s own information systems can be a significant undertaking. This leads many organizations to try to fit their specific, often unique business processes into the confines of a packaged solution, rather than occupy themselves with the challenge of building something more customized.

While there are advantages to purchasing established software packages, those that do follow the custom development route stand to end up with a system exactly tailored to their specific business needs and processes. Soliant Consulting, a 55 person professional services firm headquartered in Chicago IL and with major offices in the San Francisco and Philadelphia metro regions, has been helping organizations transition from ad hoc or packaged software solutions to custom solutions for almost two decades. Depending on the needs of the organization, creating custom software can be very much within a businesses’ means and offer significant benefits.

“Many organizations, especially small and medium-sized businesses, may start off tracking many of their important data points in a tool like a spreadsheet,” says Bob Bowers, Soliant’s CEO. “They often find themselves emailing around important files, having multiple copies of the same data, and scratching their heads about whose version of key data is the latest or most correct. Then they wonder where to go next.”

Soliant calls this challenge the “workgroup conundrum:” where a business team does not need an Enterprise-wide, massive software system deployed, but at the same time is not well served by spreadsheets and ordinary desktop office tools. They are caught in the middle.

A workgroup is a group of people working on a coherent or connected set of business problems. Examples might include the 30-person permissions department of a large publisher, or a 50-person team of doctors, nurses, researchers and assistants working to better understand Alzheimer’s disease. “Workgroup” is a somewhat rough term but generally refers to groups of 2 to 200 people.

Workgroup problems are not the same thing as “enterprise” problems. Especially in software, “enterprise” tends to suggest systems that touch most or all of the personnel in a large organization of many hundreds or thousands of people. Enterprise software problems include challenges such as designing a timecard system for 4000 employees at 20 different physical locations, or a system to handle performance reviews in a Fortune 50 company.

As between these two profiles, Soliant is focused relentlessly on meeting the specific needs of workgroups: real-time data sharing and highly customized business processes and workflows.

A workgroup typically needs shared, nearly-real-time access to key data such as customer records, patient records, orders, and the like. Office-suite documents don’t suffice for this purpose, even cloud-based offerings like Google Apps or Microsoft’s Office 365. These do allow shared access to data, but still lack robust data integrity checking, validation, varying levels of access privilege, and other key features of database-driven business information systems.

Organizations at this stage face a “buy versus build” decision: either buy a solution that purports to solve problems like the ones they face, and try to adapt the solution to their needs (and inevitably adapt their processes at least slightly to fit what the package can and cannot do), or build a custom solution. (Certainly, a combination of the two is also possible – for example, Salesforce provides both a robust CRM and a fully customizable platform).

Buying commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) software can have several advantages. In theory,COTS software promises lower costs and shorter timelines than fully custom-built software. “Often, for mature, highly standardized business functions such as taxes, payroll, or accounting, a COTS package can deliver vastly deeper functionality for a fraction of the cost of a custom solution,” says Bowers.

Though we use technology as our delivery vehicle, our mission is simply to help improve our client’s business

There are downsides to the COTS approach as well. A COTS package may contain a lot of functionality that a specific customer doesn’t need. Often the implementers of the commercial package pay insufficient attention to unique business processes. The result can be a solution that is not 100 percent adapted to a specific organization’s needs. Organizations may then be compelled to tailor their process to fit the way the commercial package works.

Custom-built software, by definition, allows for complete customization and adaptation to the needs of a specific business. There are no “extra” features cluttering up user screens, and the workflows are precisely those the business needs. However, the custom solution is at least perceived to be more costly and to take longer to develop.

In general, businesses are well advised to consider COTS software for mature, standardized, non-unique processes such as accounting and payroll, especially if these systems need a low level of integration with other, more customized systems.

Businesses are well advised to consider some level of custom software for unique, business-specific workflows, and those workflows that don’t fall into the mainstream categories of COTS business systems. Additionally, custom solutions may make sense for more standardized processes such as CRM or inventory, if the system in question needs a high level of integration with more systems that drive more customized workflows and processes.

Whether building, buying, or a mix of both, organizations also confront the question whether to do the work themselves. Whether it’s the implementation of a COTS package (for example, one of the SAGE financial packages), or a custom solution, organizations wishing to do the work themselves need to develop and maintain significant internal resources, not only to perform the initial work, but to manage and maintain the solution. (When an organization hands a major implementation project or a custom software build to a person or team with many other existing responsibilities, the project often goes poorly).

Soliant’s chief focus is on supporting organizations with workgroup-sized business problems, which have decided to seek outside assistance in building a customized solution.

A Choice of Tools

In its twenty years of operation, Soliant has settled on three main tools strategies for developing customized workgroup applications: FileMaker Pro, Salesforce, and custom web applications based on PHP and SQL.

FileMaker Pro began in the 80s as an MS-DOS based database program. Now a wholly-owned subsidiary of Apple, the product has matured into a powerful development platform that delivers rich, custom solutions to Windows, MacOS and iOS devices, and can deliver solutions to the web as well (including to mobile browsers running on Android devices).

Soliant has been deeply involved in FileMaker over the whole life of the company. They have one of the largest FileMaker development teams in the industry, which have won seven major industry awards, and have authored eight books and the official training materials for the last eight versions of FileMaker (going back to about 2003).

FileMaker is an ideal platform for creating very rich interfaces tailored to custom business workflows and processes. The interfaces work identically across Mac and Windows, and can be easily extended onto iOS. Users of iOS devices can (with an appropriate connection) access their shared data from the field and see changes to that data in real time.

wSoliant also specializes in the Saleforce platform. began in the late 90s as an Internet-based provider of CRM (Customer Relationship Management) solutions, in what was then called an ASP (Application Service Provider) model, which we would now refer to as cloud-based. Salesforce still has strong roots in CRM, but has also expanded into areas such as customer service, marketing, knowledge management and community building. Salesforce is an ideal platform for organizations that want to use the mature functions in
one of the key Salesforce focus areas, such as CRM, and also extend their solution with customized business processes while accessing the entire solution from a web browser.

Finally, for customers whose needs exceed the capabilities of FileMaker or Salesforce, Soliant is also a provider of entirely customized Web Applications. Created with modern development practices and web technologies, these applications can be accessed by dozens or hundreds of users anywhere in the world.

Success Stories

The choice of appropriate platforms and tools is only partly responsible for Soliant’s success. A key differentiator is the length and depth of its client relationships. Many relationships last five years or more, and active relationships of 10 or 15 or even 20 years are not uncommon.

Pearson Education, a major player in the educational publishing sector, chose Soliant for solutions that could allow them to effectively manage their database of images. Soliant built a FileMakerbased system that tracked all educational products—books and other product types, illustrators and photo agencies, work orders and commissions, and all individual images and permissions. “The system has been used by internal users and also shared out to external partners who participate in the image development process,” says Bowers. Initially delivered in the period of 2000-2001, the system has seen continuous evolution, with new features being developed every year, and fierce loyalty of its user base who consider it a mission-critical strategic asset.

"Often, for mature, highly standardized business functions such as taxes, payroll, or accounting, a COTS package can deliver vastly deeper functionality for a fraction of the cost of a custom solution".

In another case, when the Nebraska Department of Education (NDE) received a state mandate to implement an identification and evaluation system for all resident children with disabilities, the volume of information and the number of disparate schools across the state created a daunting challenge. The department turned to Soliant Consulting. “The mandate required over 95 percent of the public schools across Nebraska to use this new system and there was nothing available on the market that was a viable option,” says Bowers. With such a broad user base and varied workflow processes, Soliant focused on defining the functional requirements and designing a system with rapid accessibility for all users. Working closely with the NDE staff, Soliant created a web-based application that employs a combination of PHP, RDBMS (PostgreSQL), Prince XML and FileMaker tools. The application was able to unify over 9,000 users and support over 175,000 children with disabilities. It was deployed nearly 15 years ago and has been able to adapt and evolve to changing requirements.

Consultancy First

Successful delivery of tailored business solutions can only come through deep familiarity with a customer’s organization, mission, challenges, and process. Drawing on decades of business experience, Soliant is often able to recognize opportunities for process improvement or organizational development. Soliant’s deep discovery processes often uncover areas where processes need to be better defined, or opportunities to improve communication among different units within an organization. “Though we use technology as our delivery vehicle, our mission is simply to help improve our client’s business,” says Bowers.

With its strength in consulting, and mature technology approaches, Soliant looks forward to many years of helping small and large workgroups negotiate the buy-build conundrum, and continuing to make positive and long-lasting contributions to the organizations with whom it works.

Soliant Consulting

Chicago, IL

Bob Bowers, CEO

Soliant Consulting creates custom software applications on the platforms of FileMaker Pro, PHP/SQL, and Salesforce.