The importance of composability in enterprise software

Finding the balance between too much and too little software is crucial to ensure that users are both comfortable in using your solution and excited for what comes next

Deane Barker
By Deane Barker on 01 June 2022
The importance of composability in enterprise software

Over my career, I’ve spent 15 years helping organisations select and implement enterprise software. There’s one pattern I would see happen repeatedly – a lack of balance between not enough and too much. 

Whenever you buy software, you’re putting a boundary around your needs. The upper limit of what the software can do is restrictive. You need to figure out how far from that boundary you are, and how long it will take you to get there. 

At the same time, people and organisations have a ‘maximum technology absorption rate’. Change is usually incremental and rarely transformation, and too much software can be overwhelming. It’s a constant tension. 

When we got a puppy, we bought a kennel for her to sleep in at night. We sat it at the foot of our bed and the dog loved the little space to curl up in. 

There’s a canine psychology aspect to this. It turns out that dogs are ‘lair animals’ – they love small spaces that make them feel safe. Put them in a large empty room, and they’ll likely find a corner. 

However, the dog grew, and what was once cosy soon became restrictive. 

Helpfully, the kennel was expandable. It was two or three times the size we needed at first, and it had a back wall that could move. As the dog grew, we kept moving the back wall a few inches at a time. The space stayed nice and comfortable, and we’re not sure the dog ever noticed.  

If we didn’t have an expandable kennel, what could we have done? The first night the dog crawled in, we’d have looked at the few inches between the dog and the wall and think, “Well, when she hits that, I guess we get a new kennel.” When that time came, we’d incur the expense, the effort and the time to swap out kennels and get the dog used to the new one. 

There are two similarities between this scenario and software. First, too much software can overwhelm your users. Users like to feel mastery over their tool, and any part of a software package that they don’t use is a loose thread tugging at both their attention and their desire to feel like they like have control. 

Second, too little software can box in your organisation. If the ‘back wall’ can’t move, then you end up constantly switching between platforms. Besides the expense, effort and time, this drains your team’s morale as you lose any sense of permanence. All urgency to make full use of the current tools is also removed because users know that the technology won’t be around for long. 

When evaluating an enterprise solution, how far are you away from the back wall? And does that wall move? In any healthy organisation, your needs will grow over time, so is the solution going to grow with you? 

This is the eternal struggle – how do we avoid overwhelming our organisations while not backing ourselves into a corner? 

This hottest buzzword in enterprise software these days is ‘composable’. The promise is that businesses can ‘compose’ a solution by bolting together pieces that are usually provided by the same vendor. This is a change from tradition, which previously saw organisations creating a best-of-breed solution from several vendors.  

Start small and build outwards. Engage with your vendor at a level that will neither overwhelm your budget nor your users, but one that gives you room to grow and experiment. Your users are part of your organisation’s story, and they want to be both engaged by their present capabilities and know that there’s a larger plot to carry them forward.  

Microsoft Azure is a great example. There’s a stunning depth of tools and services on the cloud platform. I don’t know what most of them do, but that’s okay, because they’re outside my sphere of need. I’m not paying for them, and I haven’t engaged with them yet. I have what I need right now, but the functional horizon is so far away that I will never reach it. 

And this is the promise of composability: it will neither overwhelm nor constrict. The walls move – you can stay cosy yet expand over time. Your users will thank you for it.  

Deane Barker is senior director of content management strategy at Optimizely

This article was originally published in the Spring 2022 issue of Technology Record. To get future issues delivered directly to your inbox, sign up for a free subscription.

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