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Workday bows to enterprise, reins in release cycle

Phil Wainewright Profile picture for user pwainewright September 10, 2013
Customers who are used to pre-planning the rollout of new software versions over several months or even years will be pleased to learn Workday has reduced the number of annual upgrades.

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In the race to transform the enterprise through cloud computing, Workday's customers have said, "Whoa, slow down there."

Typically, an annual vendor event like Workday Rising is all about announcing new product features and functionality. While there were new bells and whistles on show during Tuesday morning's opening keynote — improved analytics for example and news of a new vertical edition for higher education — the highlight for many in the 3000-strong crowd at San Francisco's Moscone Center was the moment when co-CEO Aneel Bhusri revealed Workday's decision to cut the frequency of new feature releases from three times a year to twice a year. The company was reacting to feedback from customers, he said, that digesting three major updates a year was too challenging.

"I just want to crank out new functionality but our customer groups said no, we need more time to do these updates," he explained.

It's a totemic shift for Workday, which has hitherto made a selling point of the frequency of updates compared to the once-every-three-years-or-worse cycles of its on-premise competitors. Release 23 next August will be the last of the current regime, after which Workday will fall in with the same twice-yearly release schedule and Summer and Winter naming system as cloud CRM giant

Management constraints

The shift is a reflection of a paradox that many cloud application vendors face as they win increased adoption among established enterprises. For all the agility that such organizations aspire to, there are limits to the management resources they can devote to supporting new capabilities as they're introduced. Workday has had to throttle back the frequency of updates to match those constraints.

The irony is that — although Workday presumably intends to maintain the same rate of innovation under its sparser release cycle — those looking on from the faster-moving, consumer-led end of the cloud industry may see it as evidence Workday is becoming more like the traditional enterprise software vendors that it claims to supplant.

Bhusri ended his keynote with a call to customers to "commit to transformation," but most of them are likely happy enough simply doing a better job of achieving their existing business goals rather than exploring new ways of working. Instead of leading them along a path of radical transformation, Workday has had to temper its revolutionary ardor and pander to their more conservative change management leanings.

Expectation chasm

The paradox is an example of the "expectation chasm" between business aspiration and technology reality that Workday implementation expert Jason Averbook told me earlier this year surrounds SaaS applications:

"You have these tech guys who are very skilled at handling the ERP systems, but working at the two-to-three year dinosaur pace of conventional software," said Averbook. "Suddenly they're dealing with cloud applications and they have a feature refresh coming at them every 3 months."

Averbook, who is chief business innovation officer at cloud integrator Appirio, tweeted his welcome for today's news:


That analysis was borne out by the experience of Roberta Gordon, Workday project director at Brown University, who said that over the course of the four update cycles it has now gone through, the institution has developed a routine to manage the roll-out of new features. "With every update it was less about process, more about what value we were getting from Workday," she said.

Initially the University had implemented a very limited set of new features, but it had been able to become more adventurous as the process became more robust. "We started small and it whet our appetite and we're taking more [features] now," she said.

Forward planning

After sampling views from a number of Workday customers at the event, it seems that many still make their IT plans on 18-24 month cycles and therefore less frequent updates fit better with those timescales.

Medical parts maker CareFusion develops its IT planning to 18-month roadmaps that align with business objectives, said Pete LeBlanc, VP of human resources. For each new Workday release, the team looks at forthcoming features to see if they can incorporate them into business processes. "Sometimes it fits, sometimes it doesn't," he said. "There's never any pressure to do it."

Hotel group Four Seasons carefully plans when to switch on new functions. "We take nothing right away, we plan it out when we're going to take it between updates," said Mary Sullivan, SVP corporate human resources.

"You have to be very disciplined within your own team about something that has come along without thinking about the downstream effects. All of it, it's like it's candy, but you've got to think about what it means for the manager on the floor."

At the same time, being able to roll out new functionality without any of the old hassle of upgrading the underlying technology is seen as a huge boon. "We're about to go through our second full talent cycle," said Sullivan, which will include new functions that users have requested. "It's going to be so much better and we're going to look like heroes — and we did nothing.

Preview phase

This carefully planned approach makes sense for core applications such as HR and financials, Appirio's chief strategy officer Narinder Singh told me in a conversation later that evening. But a more frequent update cycle might make more sense for faster-moving application categories such as recruitment, he said.

In another move designed to further ease the update cycle, Workday has added a 4-week preview phase to the release process. As well as having 2-3 weeks for technology testing of a sandbox release instance prior to rolling out the production instance, customers will in future have the option of letting users access a preview instance where they can try out new features or test new business processes.

Bhusri said that the customers will see planned downtime fall by around 40 hours per year, from a combination of a faster release process and the reduction from three to two.

The next release from Workday will be 21 in December, when the old Flex-based user interface will be replaced by a long-awaited HTML5 version. "I know it's a lot of change," said Bhusri somewhat diffidently. In what is effectively a dry run of the promised preview instance, there will be a 5-week window during which customers will be able to to toggle between the old and new while they get used to the new UI.

Disclosure: Workday and are diginomica premium partners. Workday paid the author's travel costs to attend Workday Rising.

Image credit: © jeanma85 -

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