View from the Edge

Maximizing the ROI for Safety-Focused Software Tools

In this issue, CarriersEdge co-founder Mark Murrell looks at the differences between hardware and software, and what it takes to get the most out of safety software tools.

In 1999, Hershey had one of the most embarrassing and expensive debacles in the history of tech. The chocolate giant had been attempting to implement a large enterprise software system in time for Y2K and failed catastrophically. In addition to the (reported) $112 million they spent on software and consulting fees, the failure was also blamed for $100 million in lost sales as well. That's a big hit, and unfortunately it came during their busiest season so it was extra painful.

Since then, many case studies have been written about this mess, and it's become a cautionary tale for anyone who sells or implements enterprise software at any scale. While there were many reasons why Hershey's project failed, much of it comes down to a simple truth:

To get real benefit from software you need to change business processes and let people adapt, which takes time and causes some short term disruption.

Whether you're working on a giant enterprise-level transformation or small department-level project, that fact doesn't change. And if you're going to get maximum value out of software it's important to recognize that and plan accordingly.

I spend a lot of time talking to partners and customers about ROI for online tools, and much of that conversation ends up centered around the challenges of the organizational change required to maximize software benefits.

Part of the issue, I've realized, is that software is a relatively new thing in the world of transportation safety, so people are just getting used to it. Many processes are still paper-based, or handled through basic tools like Excel, and it's only recently that dedicated safety and HR management systems have started to gain traction. As a result, people don't have a lot of experience evaluating and implementing software systems.

On the other hand, safety hardware has been around for a long time, and people are completely comfortable evaluating and implementing that. Unfortunately, hardware and software work very differently in terms of ROI, so a new approach is required.

Hardware products tend to have a direct effect on the process they're designed to improve so once you install something, it starts delivering benefits very quickly. If you buy a more efficient truck, you see that right away. If you add trailer skirts, they save fuel immediately. If you buy a faster computer, the difference is obvious.

But software doesn't work like that. Just installing it gets you nothing - you have to use it, and use it properly, to get the real benefits. That requires a bit of a mental shift if you're used to just plugging things in and seeing the improvement right away.

Every software system is built around a set of best practices and recommendations. They may not be obvious, but the system architects had specific usage ideas in mind when they designed it. In the tech world, these are known as "Use Cases" or "User Stories" and they provide step-by-step explanations of what the designers expect people to do. Many use cases are broad and fairly simple, describing standard or basic actions, but buried within them will always be assumptions about how people interact with the software.

If you adapt your processes to match those use cases, you can see huge benefits. However, if you try to shoehorn the software into your current processes, you mostly end up like Hershey - massive disruption with little or no benefit.

So, how do you make sure you're using it the right way? How do you avoid the Hershey trap and maximize your return from any particular software package?

There are a couple of pretty easy steps to follow.

  1. Recognize that software and hardware are very different and plan accordingly. Hardware is often about improving existing processes, but software is about enabling new processes that allow the business to expand in ways that weren't possible before.
  2. Expect to spend some time getting to know the system and thinking about how your existing processes can be changed to capitalize on those capabilities.
  3. Talk to the vendor about recommended use and best practices. They'll always have a list of ideas that work really well, and some things they think you should avoid.

As an example, people moving their training online (from a traditional classroom model) are coming from a place where training was painful to deliver so they only did the bare minimum. It's tempting to continue that mindset, only delivering a bare bones curriculum to people who absolutely need it. However, online training removes the pain of classroom so there's no need to skimp on it anymore. In fact, you really only benefit when everyone is participating on a regular basis. That's a big mental shift but it dramatically improves the ROI.

The need to shift mindsets when implementing software is only going to become more important as time goes on. Internet pioneer and investor Marc Andreesen famously said in 2011 that "software is eating the world" and it's even more true now. As more and more business solutions move from hardware to software it becomes ever more crucial to ensure that business processes are adapted to take full advantage of what that software enables.

View from the Edge is a bi-monthly review of best practices in risk management, driver development, and technology for the trucking industry, produced by CarriersEdge.

CarriersEdge provides interactive online driver training for the North American trucking industry. A comprehensive library of safety and compliance courses is supplemented with extensive content creation and customization options, full featured survey tools, detailed management reports, and the industry's first dedicated mobile app for driver training.

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