Growing companies are investing an increasing amount in IT systems to automate and simplify business processes. This means the market for such systems is vast, with imagination and budget the only boundaries.
As companies look to automate different business functions the question of bespoke or off-the-shelf is usually raised sooner rather than later.
Whether relying on an in-house IT team or outsourcing the work to a specialist company, the decision to purchase a ready made solution or to have software specifically developed raises a number of issues that must be considered.
The beauty of bespoke systems is that they are tailored to the exact requirements of the company allowing the software to fully integrate, helping to meet legislation or key business objectives.
Scalability is also a positive factor, with bespoke systems able to accommodate business growth and contract with any necessary downsizing. The system should evolve with the company to provide an ongoing perfect fit.
This is possible because bespoke systems are designed with the long term IT plans of a company in mind. Software of this type ensures that the company can move forward instead of just automating what it already does, resulting in it being stuck in the same rut.
In an ideal world every company would have bespoke software were it not for three important preventative factors:
Firstly, the cost of bespoke software can be much higher than off-the-shelf solutions. Individually crafted software often needs teams comprising of dozens of people each bringing particular skills such as analysts, programmers, hardware and software specialists and technical writers.
The time and manpower needed to create and maintain a bespoke system quickly adds up. However, bespoke software successfully developed can potentially be sold on, becoming an extra source of revenue for the company.
Secondly bespoke software can only match the requirements of the customer to the extent that the customer can define them and the developer can understand them. If the customer does not have a clear strategic plan for the business operations, long term IT plans that support the business requirement are difficult to determine.
The finished product is unlikely to have the capacity to evolve with the company, with errors and misunderstandings at the early stages of development leading to spiralling costs and delayed delivery.
Thirdly, the issue of compatibility can cause problems. If the software is not compatible with the existing systems, operational difficulties are likely to arise.
Legacy systems may not have been designed with integration in mind and therefore the ability to transfer data between systems may have a major impact on the inter-operation of systems.
Similarly if the software is not compatible with the systems of others, customers and suppliers for example, it may cause problems to the overall functioning of the business.
Generally speaking, off-the-shelf systems are produced to meet the perceived needs of a particular market or sector. They have, in effect, a one size fits all set of generic features and, for more complex applications, customization facilities.
As a rule, they are easy to install and easy to use. It is important to remember that off-the-shelf solutions are bred from the best components of various software systems, often beginning life as a bespoke package designed for a specific client - so does this mean that off-the-shelf provides users with the best of both worlds?
The process of software and systems development is a difficult one involving highly skilled people and consuming a great deal of time and resources. However, off-the-shelf systems can be limited in terms of performance, and businesses often find themselves working around the software instead of the software working round them.
Luckily customers requiring support for their off-the-shelf system have the peace of mind of knowing that the software is tried and tested, and support is readily available.
An alternative way to access the more expensive off-the-shelf products is through a managed services company. They purchase the products and allow clients to use them as part of a managed services contract, which results in a much more cost effective solution.
Although the customer does not then have ownership and management rights, the software is made affordable, and the problem of it becoming outdated and even obsolete is eliminated.
Unless the company has some amazingly unique scenario (that would not have been picked up by the thousands of off the shelf solutions) many companies can buy a suitable off-the-shelf solution that is the result of hundreds of thousands of man-hours of development and fine tuning.
However, the availability of software off-the-shelf at very low prices bears no comparison with the cost of the processes involved. The low prices are the result of mass marketing - meaning that many companies within the same market sector have access to the same software, so there is no competitive advantage to be gained from it.
If existing processes or those that a company is wishing to develop are unique to the business, products or services, then a bespoke solution is likely to fit better. It will deliver a more appropriate result than a commercial off the shelf solution.
A third option to consider is a compromise between off-the-shelf and bespoke solutions. Specialist IT companies can develop systems using a mixture of commercial off-the-shelf software which can be modified by them to fit in exactly with the customer's requirements.
By matching the needs of the customer to an existing product, the challenge is then to integrate it seamlessly into the company, with little or no disruption to existing working practices. This provides an immediate competitive advantage to the customer who is not then operating the same system as direct competitors.
The Pareto 80:20 principle can be applied to this scenario. Having 80 per cent of the application already available enables the remaining 20 per cent to be configured specific to customer requirements.
This type of environment is especially suited to workflow or process driven requirements, where the engine and administration aspects of the application are already available and the 20 per cent bespoke configuration allows rule sets and process specific to the customer to be easily implemented.
Other benefits that become apparent are the cost savings. Modifications or additions to an existing software package shouldn't run into the tens of thousands of pounds that a full system development would cost. This is a much more manageable project for an in-house IT team that also has ongoing IT issues to deal with.
As products become more sophisticated and the population as a whole, more computer literate, it is possible that future off-the-shelf software will become more versatile than it already is. However, bespoke systems will always lead the field, with off-the-shelf software merely mass copies of successful bespoke designs.
The real challenge that lies ahead is how to combine the two to capitalize on the strengths of each whilst eliminating the weaknesses. Customers are increasingly demanding 'smart' solutions, and more companies need to respond by offering them.