Custom Dev or Off-the-Shelf? Which Approach is Best?

This is a continuation from “Fall in Love with the Problem, Not the Solution”

When it comes time to choose new technology to support your business operations, the two main categories are off the shelf (out of the box) and custom developed solutions. So where should you begin when making this kind of investment decision?

Define the problem you want to solve

Would your processes benefit from automation through technology? Maybe the existing technology is simply old and needs replacing or upgrading? Does your leadership team need more real-time data to make effective business decisions? Or perhaps there’s a popular new technology sweeping the industry and you think it could benefit your operations?

Whatever the problem you’re trying to solve, make sure it is specific and well-defined before you begin selecting the technology. The best way to do this is to start with your hypothesis about the problem and talk to all the stakeholders to ensure your definition of the problem addresses all aspects of the issue.

Gather requirements

Once you’ve defined the problem, it is time to gather your requirements for the technology that will solve it. Talk to the people who will use the technology about how they do their work and what their needs are for a new technology solution to the problem you’ve defined. Find out what inputs they would need and talk to the people who provide those inputs. Determine where the output goes and what format is required to make it useful. Does this technology need to put out data that is compatible with another system?

When gathering requirements from all the stakeholder groups, first share the definition of the problem to be solved. Then, when documenting the requirements and requests, ensure that all the high priority requirements directly contribute to solving the problem. Any requirement that doesn’t is recorded, but as a ‘nice to have’ at a lower priority.

Evaluate your options

Now that your requirements are documented, it’s time to evaluate to what degree available off the shelf technologies meet them. When evaluating off the shelf vs. custom developed technology solutions, there are pros and cons to consider for both.

Off the shelf products offer a lot of convenience, they are readily available, typically come with a support package, and have features and functionality that are usually well tested. However, a considerable effort must be made to configure an off the shelf product and what you gain in convenience you may lose in terms of functionality that meets all of your needs.

Custom development, on the other hand, provides a lot of flexibility and can meet just about any requirement. That flexibility comes at a price though, and custom solutions typically cost significantly more money and time to create and tend to have a higher maintenance cost once developed.

In order to compare multiple product options quantitatively, you can assign a score to each requirement based on how well the product meets the need. Then you can weight each score based on requirement criticality in order to get a weighted score for each product option. An experienced partner can support this activity and provide an “apples to apples” comparison for all the available options.

Ultimately, whether you choose to go off the shelf, custom dev, or a combination of the two, you can be sure you’ve made the right decision if you outline the problem first and select the solution that will maximize functionality, time, and your budget to solve it.


About Allison
Allison Samuels is a transformation and change leader with 6+ years of experience in change management and business analytics across organizations of all sizes.

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