What 'Enterprise' Really Means

By Scott Robinson

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Does size matter? This is the next big question in the evolution of the ERP industry. As Internet commerce continues to proliferate and push ERP forward into the IT limelight, we need to re-examine the way we use the word 'enterprise.'

The simplest definition is also the worst. We often see enterprise as a way of defining a company as large -- over 1,000, over 10,000. Take your pick. We see it attached to Internet prominence. Enterprise is a word that comes to mind alongside Wal-Mart and Amazon.

It provides a context for the dizzying scope of business application software behemoths like SAP and Oracle. It also has various other incorrectly applied, pseudo definitions of convenience: geographically distributed business, e-business, or, perhaps, "User-of-Expensive-ERP-Software". These definitions aren't actually wrong, but they are certainly incomplete.

"The Enterprise" can describe a huge range of business operations in any market, any region and any arena of commerce. And it's important, when considering your company's readiness to enter in, to first understand what enterprise is not.

What It's Not

It is not about size; just about any business, of any size, can become an "enterprise." And it is not about software per se; the implementation of a premium ERP system isn't what makes your company an enterprise, and not implementing a premium ERP system doesn't keep you from becoming one.

Because of the Internet, and thanks to modern database technology and object-oriented application resources, any company with determination, creativity, and willingness to let their business processes evolve radically can march onto the playing field. The Internet has merely leveled it.

Enterprise isn't about size and it isn't about the Web. We get the most out of the word when we think of it as a frame-of-mind.

What is enterprise, then? Here are some possibilities:

  • comprehensive application and database integration;
  • distributed systems, on the web and otherwise;
  • adaptive business systems?
  • There are more things we could add to this list, and there would be some partial truth in each. But none captures the true core of enterprise, the one indispensable feature that sets a company apart, both internally and externally, making it a viable 21st century player in business.It's this: an enterprise is a business entity with a well-developed and unified process reasoning that permeates all its activities. All the processes that define the business's internal operations and role in the marketplace act in harmony. More importantly, there is technology supporting this unified process reasoning that enforces company-wide discipline in implementing short-term and long-term activity.

    This is what an enterprise really is: a "living" company, a corporate entity with component divisions all feed into one another, not by way of policies and procedures, but with real, physical connections and constraint and enabling provided by adaptive processes and process-driven IT resources.

    Your company is no longer a clunky robot in a pre-defined, well-mapped room. You're a lithe and alert mammal roaming a rich and changing landscape, surviving and thriving. If you are a maker of things, this means you make those things more economically and distribute them more efficiently. If you are a provider of services, it means those services are increasingly effective and rendered at lower cost. If you are a facilitator, it means you play your role in a larger operation with greater responsiveness and increased flexibility.

    Bottom line is an enterprise is a business that grows in organic fashion, supported by systems that adapt to the environment without and enforce process discipline within.

    As the saying goes, it's not how much you have, it's what you do with it.

    Commodity IT

    The days of leveraging your uniqueness in the marketplace by way of your assets are over. The Internet economy is more egalitarian than any marketplace has ever been. No more "We're better than our competition because of our superior technology," or "We're better because we have data (information) that our competitors don't have."

    In a world where information is more available than ever (and increasingly fleeting) it's no longer about keeping the mission-critical information to yourself, or playing off proprietary information strategically, it's about using all the information available to you more wisely than anyone else.

    But the enterprise transition doesn't stop there. It's important to note it doesn't terminate at your company's functional boundaries. Like any other living thing, it is part of an ecosystem, dependent upon other living things. How a company interacts with partner companies is at least as important as how it reacts to competitors. Cooperation is often survival-critical in natural ecosystems, and it is increasingly so in the emerging global economy.

    What good is all the increased efficiency, dynamic response, process discipline and adaptation to the marketplace if it doesn't extend from your company to your partners? The long-term survivors in the wilderness are those that work together. If you make your company, faster, more responsive and adaptable, but you don't put this efficiency to work in your partner relationships, you'll be constrained by their limitations.

    The Internet is the "Great Enabler," and the enterprise concept is what it enables. There is now technology available to companies of every size that permits them to leverage the Internet for enterprise-level integration with their partner companies' systems.

    Don't be fooled into thinking that this is not an essential step in the enterprise transition. Your efforts to bring your company to life within its walls is a halfway measure if the benefits do not extend into the collective response to the marketplace that you can only achieve with the cooperation of your partner companies.

    The Internet can get you there. Budget for process logic implementation between companies. Use the Internet to tie your IT systems to theirs, in an enterprise integration architecture. Be willing to pay the bills if your partner companies are smaller and have fewer resources; you'll get it all back many times over.


    Before you take the enterprise plunge, there is one final point that must be made. You don't necessarily need premium ERP software replacement to make the transition. Nor do you necessarily need an army of high-priced consultants to lead you through the darkness. Your enterprise transition will be far more effective if it is about your own new, unique vision, driven by the concepts put forth above.

    It's not about how much you spend or how much software you replace. It's about taking the operational philosophy and concepts that you believe in and desire to realize, and building them into growing, changing IT systems that compliment your human resources, rather than enslaving them.

    You can do this with technology that can be obtained very inexpensively, and you can leverage your own in-house expertise and creativity to guide you, using only those outside services that you truly need.

    Scott Robinson is an enterprise software and systems consultant with Quantumetrics, Inc., a consultant's collaborative. Robinson has worked with such well known organizations as the Dept. of Defense (DOD), Dept. of Energy (DOE), Wal-Mart, and Roche Pharmaceuticals. He is also a regular contributor to TechRepublic and can be reached at (812) 989-8173, or by email at drsrobinson@att.net.