The answer to this pertinent question is never cut and dry. Are you willing to fit a square peg into a round hole with an off-the-shelf solution that's perhaps 80% right for you, or would you rather build a solution that fits like a glove, working around your existing systems (possibly enhancing them too)? It all depends on the nature of your industry, your business and its specific needs now and in the future. And when IT is not your core business, chances are you don't want to dedicate an inordinate amount of time to a decision like this… important as it may be. So in a nutshell, here are some points to consider in making an informed decision.
Thinking of buying an off-the-shelf solution
Off-the-shelf packaged software is often more cost-effective and easier to install. But this must be weighed up against its rigidity and the fact that your business processes need to be modelled around the software. However, on the upside, you know exactly what you're buying with a packaged software, which means you have the ability to precisely model your business around it.
Other important factors to consider as well would be the costing structure of packaged software, and the ease of integration thereof. Most of the time off-the-shelf software comes with year-on-year licensing structures, requiring an ongoing spend on the application in order to keep using it. Integrating the packaged software into your existing application environment may prove to be challenging as well, and may very well require the use of additional middleware to be accomplished.
Thinking of building custom software
There is a traditional perception that custom can be slow, expensive and that you never know what you're going to get until the end of the build. Thankfully, these days the pieces of the puzzle can be put together much earlier in the process. This allows for a rapid turnaround where you get quick results and see benefits much earlier on thanks to incremental value-adding.
Where your competition is making do with off-the-shelf solutions, custom software provides the opportunity to really get the edge over your competition. Instead of modelling your business process around the software, custom software allows you to build exactly what you need to enhance your processes. What's more, the software can adapt over time to suit your business' needs going forward.
If you choose custom, here are a few more points to consider:
- Be sure to select a provider that has a proven track record dealing with projects in your industry. Understanding your core business is key to creating solutions that add real value to your business. It is important for your provider to understand your processes, your challenges, the general industry landscape and it's beneficial for them to have practical insights from past development experience.
- It's also important that you dedicate someone in your business to take charge of the engagement – this could be an in-house project manager, the project sponsor, or even your director of IT or CIO. In addition, it's crucial to ensure the availability of key people who know what's required on a functional, practical level.
- Remember to approach the process one step at a time. It is not wise to automate too many processes simultaneously. And keep in mind that each step also potentially requires personnel training.
After considering the main pros and cons of each approach, it's clear that there is space for both custom and packaged software in most industries. Whichever direction you choose, make sure that it is the right approach to help your business reach its full potential.