RAD Tools: What they are, who can use them, and why your business needs them

RAD Tools: What they are, who can use them, and why your business needs them

Businesses have always been dependent on IT companies for software. But new, web-based tools are changing that. These tools are so user-friendly, almost anyone can create their own billing program, asset tracker or CRM.

Software users are becoming software producers, and they are creating business applications with unbelievable speed.

It starts with PaaS
This dramatic shift in the technology landscape is due in part to two things: Platform as a Service (PaaS) and Rapid Application Development (RAD) tools. PaaS is a cloud-based technology that allows consumers to essentially rent easy-to-use, high-end development resources. Powerful tools are now available to an entirely new audience.

RAD tools have graphic interfaces with menus and buttons that let users build software with the click of a mouse. This reduces some of the time-consuming coding work. When PaaS and RAD tools are combined, it reduces a LOT of the coding work.

The tech company Progress says their RAD component, Rollbase, creates software with “80% drag-and-drop and 20% coding.” Not only do PaaS-based RAD tools dramatically speed up the development process, they are simple enough to be used by almost anybody.

RAD tools often start with basic templates for several types of programs like a calendar, time clock, contact manager, etc. Users then customize the program by dragging and dropping different elements on the screen. For instance, an employee database could have fields for home address, email, phone number, birthday, nickname, SSN, and branch office. Users simply click on the fields they want to include. It really is that easy. If you can move icons around your desktop, then you can build a custom calendar, online catalog, asset manager, or billing program.

Why you should care
PaaS-based RAD tools are revolutionary, but not because of the kinds of programs they build. There are already plenty of calendars, time clocks and document storage applications available. RAD tools matter because now non-programmers can create customized software, and they can do it very quickly.

This is a game-changer for business operations. Customized software offers benefits off-the-shelf software can’t touch. RAD tools can solve some fundamental business problems and shift the way a company thinks about technology.

Problem: You don’t work with your software, you work around it
The bar for “good” business software is pretty low. Most companies settle for applications that “almost” or “usually” perform as needed. Programs with lots of functions can be cumbersome to use and difficult to learn. There are too many clicks and too many screens required for basic processes. Despite the wealth of features, the software is still surprisingly limiting. Users come up with workarounds to find what they need. For instance, an employee might look up pricing for a job by searching for the account and then filtering by location.

A RAD tool lets companies build software around their existing processes. If employees want to look up orders by route number or “Ship To” location, then route number and “Ship To” can be made searchable values. Users can also create custom logic and workflows. For instance, a scheduling program can automatically assign tasks to employees with the lightest workload. Screens and menus can be arranged in ways that make sense for individual users. Customized software can eliminate the need for workarounds, because the most important functions can be brought forward and grouped together.

Problem: Too many options
Most people use multiple programs to do their jobs. There are separate applications for email, bookkeeping, scheduling, inventory management, etc. These programs usually aren’t connected and don’t share information. It’s an inefficient setup, especially if you need to switch between several screens to complete one task. Managers and admins may need to create separate employee databases for scheduling, payroll, and HR programs.

The PaaS/RAD tool combination replaces individual software applications with a unified ecosystem of custom programs. Employees can access their email, work schedule, daily tasks, time clock, PTO requests, and company profile from one location. A custom system also makes life easier for administrators and system managers, because the programs pull from the same database. Messages, entered time, and performance reviews are all attached to the same employee record. This makes it easy to crosscheck PTO requests against a schedule, and there’s no worry about conflicting records in different systems.

One of the best opportunities for a RAD tool to improve operations is within the sales team. Many sales reps and managers would like to tie their notes from site visits and phone calls to a customer’s order history, but most invoicing software doesn’t track anything other than sales. Businesses could use a RAD tool to build a Customer Relationship Management (CRM) program that works with their sales order software. Reps could easily check recent discussions with a customer while on a sales call. The service team could view a log of all support requests tied to a specific order.

Problem: Lost in translation
Some businesses use their IT department or an outside firm to customize or create in-house programs. It’s usually a lengthy and expensive process, and yields uncertain results. Miscommunication between users and programmers quickly increases a project’s cost. There can be a long delay between requesting a change and seeing the result, so misunderstandings aren’t discovered until it’s too late. This is a special concern for businesses trying to change their existing infrastructure or launch a new project like a customer self-service website.

RAD tools reduce delays and mistakes by giving users a more active role in the development process. Instead of hoping the programmers will understand a list of requests, the people who actually use the software can update screens, rename fields, and customize functions to the way they need. Then they can hand it off to the IT department to implement the changes. Allowing users to do a significant portion of the design work reduces the risk of miscommunication. RAD tools tee up the code for programmers and help control costs.

How to get your very own RAD
RAD tools are available in a couple of ways. Companies like Zoho and Workxpress have standalone options that let you build new applications from the ground up. Another option is to use a RAD tool attached to a larger software program, specifically a SaaS program. (Software as a Service programs are cloud-based applications. Web email services like Gmail and hosted ERP systems are examples of SaaS products.) Some SaaS providers are starting to offer RAD tools with their main applications. These tools let users build new programs or customize parts of the “parent” software. This can be a great strategy if one of your central software products has a RAD tool available. Enhancing and improving your existing central processes can be more valuable than starting at square one.

A quick note about names: not all providers call these sorts of programs “RAD tools.” Some use the term Graphic User Interface (GUI) builder or Application Platform as a Service (aPaaS). Zoho simply calls their Create program “a custom app builder.” When you’re researching this topic, look for PaaS products and app builders that use the phrases “drag and drop” or “point and click.” These terms distinguish the easy-to-use PaaS tools from those that require more programming knowledge.

The PaaS/RAD tool combination is a proven technology that’s under-represented in the building materials industry. This is a window of opportunity for forward-thinking organizations. Start exploring the options and how they would fit in your business. Find out if any of your current software providers have a RAD tool or are developing one. Customized software offers huge operational and competitive advantages to businesses ready to embrace it.

This article was originally written for Building Products Digest in June, 2014. Read the original article here.

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