When selecting the enterprise software that will underpin your critical business processes, you have to make an important decision: should you go for a Commercial Off-the-Shelf (COTS) or bespoke solution?
It can be that the perceived expense of bespoke development puts people off looking in the first place; much like choosing between an off-the-peg suit and visiting a Savile Row tailor. However when it comes to software, the nips and tucks required to make off-the-peg fit your requirements perfectly may end up costing you more than if you’d had something built with your exact needs in mind from the outset.
First things first though, what makes software ‘enterprise’?
Enterprise software characteristics generally include performance, scalability, and robustness, or software that provides centralised data storage and allows multiple users to access the system simultaneously. These are the same guiding principles to which we architect and build bespoke applications. So what other distinguishing criteria should be considered?
It could be software designed to collect data from a variety of departments, automatically analyse this data and present the analysis results throughout the organisation. Here, COTS software requires customisation in order to support the buyer’s operations in the correct format, and the cost and resulting delay in delivering this customisation adds to the expense.
So then, how do you know what’s the best fit?
COTS software’s size and scalability, combined with built-in governance capabilities, makes it an attractive option for large-scale projects where remaining compliant is a crucial consideration. With vendors often specialising for years or even decades in one specific area, you can also benefit from high levels of domain knowledge when it comes to things such as Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) and Customer Relationship Management (CRM) tools.
This strength in the delivery of established, industry-standard solutions does bring with it some compromises though. Inherently, enterprise software is designed for the enterprise rather than for the users, and in trying to meet the needs of this huge user base the edges are often missed. Consequently, you may find that you’re fitting your business processes to your chosen system rather than the other way around.
If you undertake a bespoke software build on the other hand, you can craft an elegant, intuitive system that, importantly, is both in your image and has your users in mind. By investing in the user experience as well as the underlying technology, you’ll be able to uncover and respond to the specific motivations, contexts and constraints of your users, as well as your current and future business needs.
And this last point is important. There is often an argument that moving to industry-standard COTS software enhances solutions that over time have become extremely niche, cumbersome, complex and difficult to codify. It’s important to recognise however that bespoke software can not only support existing processes but may also target the future mode of operation and, in approaching a bespoke software implementation as a change project that targets this future, it is often possible to mitigate existing risks from legacy systems or processes in a way that COTS software may not.
Not only does bespoke software allow you to include everything you need both now and in future, you also have the power not to include those elements that that you don’t require. Research from The Standish Group has revealed that typically only 20% of an enterprise application’s features are used more than occasionally, meaning that if you’re spending a million on your software you could be wasting as much as 800k.
Additionally, COTS software user interfaces are not inherently intuitive in the same way as software designed by following user-centred design principles. This, when combined with an unfamiliar and often unused feature set, can lead to greater training support requirements. A custom approach based on the specific needs of users also drives higher levels of adoption, because the users intuitively know what it is they are trying to achieve rather than shoe-horning a COTS package – or 20% of one – to fit their business process.
While we’re on this note, up to now we’ve only been talking about things that already exist. What if your idea is new? Many enterprise-level teams think they can’t disrupt markets because they can’t move as quickly as start-ups, but with a custom solution geared around rapid iteration and scalability (such as a PHP-based application), the enterprise can embrace a start-up mentality to innovate at pace.
Another factor is ownership. Not only does owning your software give you the flexibility to craft a solution that perfectly meets your requirements though, but it also provides you with confidence in the future roadmap.
Think about it: when you purchase off-the-shelf software you might pay the license fee, and keep paying every year without ownership; less like buying an off-the-peg suit then, than renting one for an extended special occasion. The alternative is to buy, often at a premium price, with enterprise-level support and future development costs but I refer back to my earlier point about supporting a future mode of operation.
When faced with all these considerations, the importance of reviewing your software needs regularly is starkly highlighted. Organisations typically upgrade their software every few years, during which time their structure and processes may change radically. What are you likely to need to enable and support these changes? While a tailor-made suit isn’t for everyone, with the potential for overall savings on cost and an undoubtedly better fit bespoke software is certainly an option worth considering before signing off on what might be a multi-million pound purchase.