Why “Vanilla ERP” Doesn’t (and Can’t) Exist

Written By: Stuart Robb
Date: February 28, 2020

Whenever I hear a client tell me “we just want a vanilla, out-of-the-box solution”, my heart sinks. I know that I now have the unenviable task of gently persuading the client that the term really doesn’t exist and that it’s an ERP industry hoax, just like “accelerators” and “standard process models.”

Some clients get it, some don’t. So, I thought I’d jot down some thoughts on the subject and you can make your own judgement.

What is “vanilla” ERP software?

I first became aware of the term “vanilla” in the context of ERPs back in the 1990’s. This was the era of very large ERP implementations, a significant percentage of which ended up being scrapped – plus la change, plus c'est la même chose! Conceptually, the idea was that if you took a packaged solution and did as little as possible to it you would make the implementation cheaper, faster and the upgrade path quicker. The trouble with this philosophy was, it was rubbish - dreamed up by marketing in the large systems integrators and software vendors to make clients feel more comfortable when they signed up to their multi-million-dollar implementations.

Let’s look at a use-case for a “vanilla” solution. Take a washing machine, for example. If I want to deploy a new washing machine in my house, I can be assured that from a geometric and functional point of view, they are pretty much identical. So, I can go down to my local department store and there will be row upon row of washing machines, all gleaming in their whiteness (ok, some are silver and the odd few are even black or red).

They are all broadly speaking the same dimensions. They all have a control panel, a drum door and a liquid tray on the front (we’re in the UK here, bear with me). It doesn’t stop there! They all take “standard” electricity, standard water and produce standard waste. So, my only real decision is whether I want a bog-standard Whirlpool or a massively expensive Miele with a 100-year warranty.

Having decided on the Miele, I return home with it and it takes the plumber another hour to remove the transit screws, plumb it up to the water and locate the drain hose. Naturally, the deployment timescale was somewhat extended by the two-week wait to get a decent plumber round who charged slightly less than my mortgage.

However, the point is that there were virtually no variables and therefore few decisions to be made – colour, reputation, warranty for the product and cost, availability and reputation/trust for the implementor. The vision, selection, procurement and implementation were simple, rapid processes (well, except the implementation. Plus la change! Again!).

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Vanilla vs. custom ERP software

Now let’s take another example. I’m sitting in a hotel room at the moment, so let’s say I want to build a hotel. I call up “Hotels Made Simple” and tell them “I want a vanilla, out-of-the-box” hotel. The only problem is, I don’t really know much about hotel construction and even less about what their “vanilla, out-of-the-box” hotel is.

In my mind, I see a 70-storey monolith with beautiful floor to ceiling glass, fitted out with Italian marble bathrooms and Louis IXV furnishings. Ok, nope, scratch that. That does sound a bit out of my price range. I’ll be happy if its like the hotel I’m in at the moment, a Hilton Doubletree. Rooms are nice, restaurants are good, bar is decent, air-conditioning sucks (as do they all), but that’s what I want.

The next day, I get the quote from “Hotels Made Simple” for their standard “vanilla, out-of-the-box” hotel, so I eagerly pay the deposit.

A few weeks later, I go to the site where they are busy with construction and the first floor is up. It doesn’t really quite look like I expected (where’s my floor to ceiling windows?), but at least work seems to be proceeding. Then, just as I’m about to leave, I see a crane lifting a roof truss into place. They’re about to put the roof on it, but its only one storey high”.

“That’s not what I wanted at all”, I exclaim.

“You bought the vanilla, out-of-the-box hotel, well here it is”, comes the terse reply.

“But what about the restaurant, the bar, the furnishings for the room? You know, all the stuff that makes it a hotel personal to me and has my secret sauce”, I reply, somewhat exasperated.

“You ordered the vanilla, out-of-the-box hotel. We don’t configure an out-of-the-box solution to your needs. It is what it says: out-of-the-box”.

The bad news: vanilla ERP doesn’t really exist

Ok, so this is a somewhat contrived example, but it does illustrate the meaningless use of the term “vanilla, out-of-the-box”, either in hotel construction or in a complex undertaking such as an ERP deployment (or HCM, or CRM). Even the top ERP systems aren’t able to enable this distorted view of reality.

In one of my other blogs, I mentioned never starting an ERP project until you’d done your homework, and put forward the view that unless you know how you wanted your ERP to work and how you planned to make use of it in advance of selecting and deploying it, you will spend an awful lot of time and money with the consultants strumming their fingers and their meter running whilst you try to work it out. You will also probably not end up with what you wanted at all.

There are no short-cuts to a good, solid, robust ERP implementation. Its putting in the work up front. Whilst it’s tempting to think that a lot of hard work and design thinking can be eliminated by using the magic works “vanilla, out-of-the-box.” It’s like using the magic word “Abracadabra”. Sounds like the answer, but magic didn’t turn out well for Mickey Mouse!

Feel free to contact us to brainstorm ideas on how new ERP software might best be deployed in your organization. Our team and I are happy to help as you continue your transformation journey!

Stuart Robb

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