Do you know the story of MSA (Management Sciences America)? That once proud business applications software vendor dominated the market for financial systems in the early 80’s, when it was the largest such software vendor by far. By 1991, it had been relegated to the software graveyard. And if you read about it’s flamboyant, larger than life CEO, John Imlay, you’ll recognize some of his wannabees in the current crop of larger than life software CEOs.
Much closer to home, there was a whole generation of mainframe HRMSs whose fortunes peaked in the mid-80’s and then tanked when client server HRM applications took hold. Only a few of us ”elder statesmen” remember InSci, Tesseract, Cyborg, MSA (they did have a payroll), M&D, Genesys, Integral and more — unless of course your firm is still running one of these “classics” in the back room. To be sure, most of these are still supported by their current owners, and there have certainly been improvements made over the last 20+ years. But these veterans have long since been passed by, not only by several generations of changes in technology, software architecture, and software engineering, but also by profound changes in the nature of work and workers. These old code bases live today, in the backest of the back offices, as modified beyond recognition US payroll applications, lovingly tended by the last COBOL programmers of my generation.
But this isn’t a story about the history of our HRM software industry but rather about its future. Nothing is forever, not software companies or software architectures. And no software company, no matter how successful in one era, is immune from becoming yesterday’s news. There’s a profound generational change afoot in the world of business applications software, and its being led to an impressive extent, just as the move to client server was led, by innovators in HRM software.
I’ll have a lot to say in future posts about the generational shift to SaaS and the “cloud,” but this post is intended to sound a cautionary note to those HR leaders and their HRM delivery system leaders: there’s no place to hide for you, your firm, or your HRM software vendor if you miss this generational change. We’ve just watched General Motors driven to its knees as much by hubris and short-sightedness as were the HRM software Snowden’s of Yesteryear. And that could well happen to one or more of today’s software giants.
Postscript: The Naomi in the picture also peaked in the mid-80’s but, unlike the referenced HRM software products of yesteryear, I’ve been able to reinvent myself quite regularly.