The ability to easily mix-and-match best-of-breed components from different vendors is often claimed as an advantage for SaaS over all-in-one suites from conventional on-premise software vendors. But it may not be such a boon for applications where a consistent user interface is important. That was the takeaway insight when I caught up with leading HR SaaS vendor Authoria back in April — a conversation I've only now had a chance to write up. In another challenge to SaaS convention, Authoria also questioned the practice of upgrading customers all at the same time. More on that below, since it picks up a point raised in my post earlier this week on Many degrees of multi-tenancy.
Although not as well known in the SaaS world as other people management vendors such as SuccessFactors and Workday, privately-held Authoria is recognized by those in the know as a leader in its field: "the rock star of the moment in talent management software," said Workforce Management magazine in its December 2007 issue. Targeting larger enterprises — the median headcount of its customer base is 20,000 employees — Authoria claims more than 300 customers and a total of four million employees and managers served by its on-demand applications.
I was briefed in the run-up to Authoria's launch in mid-April of a new, unified product that brings all the vendor's applications together on a single platform. Even calling it a 'suite' doesn't really do it justice, director of marketing communications Michael Blaber told me. "What we're doing is basically unveiling a complete solution on one technology platform," he explained. The platform was first introduced 18 months ago when the company delivered online recruitment built on the underlying SOA architecture. "We have now built out performance management, compensation management and employee development," he said, to complete the offering.
There are two reasons for consolidating on a single platform, both to do with breaking down barriers between the separate application 'silos' of talent management. One is the familiar notion of consolidating information. "In the past, someone is hired and all that data sits in a recruitment profile. Performance appraisal data is stored in another silo," explained Blaber. A unified architecture allows that information to be shared and reused across applications. But perhaps even more important is the notion of consolidating the user interface (UI) so that users can easily migrate between applications without having to relearn another set of UI conventions or workflow routines.
Often the biggest challenge with people management software is persuading managers and employees throughout the organization to actually use it. "Making the manager effective across those functions really matters," said Nina McIntyre, VP marketing. "It's not about HR administration. It's about will people use my software?" Having a consistent user experience across every aspect of the talent management cycle is a major factor in encouraging take-up, Authoria argues. And therefore a best-of-breed hotch-potch of clashing UIs and conflicting workflow assumptions doesn't cut it. Unless everyone agrees on a common, federated user interface, said McIntyre, a unified offering from a single vendor is the only way to go.
Best-of-breed vendors will have their own riposte to Authoria's stance, but the UI question is an important one. Either the industry defines standards — and its track record for doing so is not good — or customers will have no choice but to coalesce around a few dominant vendors.
Another comment from Authoria that gave me pause for thought was its justification for allowing customers to choose the timing of upgrades within a three-month window rather than upgrading all of them at the same time: "You can't mess around with the customer's compensation cycle," siad McIntyre. Most customers change their compensation plans to coincide with the start of a new financial quarter, and imposing a single upgrade date on all customers would inevitably disrupt some customers more than others, depending on each company's individual fiscal timetable. Authoria has chosen more of a softly-softly approach, in which it alerts customers when a new release is available and lets them choose when to action it. One customer called this a 'nudge' model as opposed to a 'push' model.
(By the way, I had thought when I wrote my previous post about multi-tenancy that financial vendor Intacct follows a similar model but I've now learnt from its CTO that it is "religious about upgrading all customers at the same time. We will never tolerate running multiple versions of our code." For more on this, see Why multi-tenancy matters.)
In contrast, Authoria is more relaxed about this and describes its own architecture as multi-tenant "where appropriate". What that means is that it runs on shared hardware and software, but there are separate databases for some larger customers that don't want their data intermingled with others on the same instance. Also if a customer has a large enough implementation, it runs as a single instance anyway. Such compromises are common among SaaS people management vendors, and for the moment it doesn't seem to be holding them back.