In part one we asked if custom-written - or ‘Bespoke’ software is worth investing in. Our answer was (unsurprisingly) it depends! This article discusses more about how we think about the business case:
Businesses often use ERP systems (https://erpinnews.com/erp-software-need) to manage their whole business - dealing with their finances, purchasing, customer relationship management (CRM), manufacturing and distribution, online web portals, even tracking time of their employees. There are many off-the-shelf ERP systems, and they are often quite configurable—allowing businesses to pick and choose the modules that are most relevant to them, and to customise the behaviour and look and feel of the service to match their company's processes and branding.
For smaller businesses, this process can be pretty straightforward. If a company's processes are those of a fairly ordinary retail business, then these solutions can often fit quite well. When off-the-shelf ERP systems fall down it's usually for a combination of two reasons—a company isn't willing to change its business practices to match the software, and/or the software's processes for accomplishing certain tasks are so generalised as to be cumbersome.
When companies run into these problems, the solution is usually to build customisations in order to cater for these adjusted processes, and that's where the costs start to rise. Frequently the pain of these customisations is often much larger than anticipated, requiring more expert user input on the client side, and more and more development effort from the supplier's side. And there are indirect costs here too, as customisations are often a barrier to upgrading to the latest version. Companies are sometimes forced to stay on older, less secure and less reliable versions of a system, because newer versions of the software break their customisations, and the costs of reworking the customisations to fit with the new version are too high.
In order to make an off-the-shelf system work really well, businesses are forced to change their business processes to fit the software, instead of having the software meet the business’ needs.
We were in a meeting with a customer, and a number of suppliers, when an ERP system provider genuinely said “we can’t gather requirements for the system, because I haven’t designed it yet”.
Think about that for a second—requirements, to this person, came after design. So the software design would dictate the business processes before the business had even defined what their processes actually needed to do.
This is where bespoke software finds its niche. At Ghyston, we emphasise, and prioritise, a low ‘total cost of ownership’, or TCO. We’ve found that these types of ERP implementations, with customisations are essentially a false economy—they emphasise a lower (though often still substantial) initial cost, without accounting for the large maintenance cost that the software incurs by being customised, even over and above the expensive licence fees.
At Ghyston, any code we write for you, belongs to you. You can maintain it, change it, any way you wish. We offer support services for our own software, but some clients prefer to do this in-house with their own development teams, and that’s their right as well.
And we focus on building software that exactly fits our clients’ needs, and work to match their processes exactly. Often new software that we build is associated with business change, and we work with the client to define their business needs, and build the software that meets them, instead of imposing new processes on them because ‘that’s how the software works’.
Crucially, this is not always the same as what the client first asks for! Sometimes we can work with a client to identify better, more elegant solutions to their problems over the course of the project; and sometimes the client’s needs change during the project itself. We work in an agile, iterative way to make sure that when the project is completed the customer has software that better enables them to operate their business.
That having been said, it’s not always an either/or. We’ve often worked with clients where they use off-the-shelf software for some of their business processes, and bespoke software for others. This is an approach which I think works well for a lot of businesses—financial packages like Sage and Xero for example have APIs which bespoke software can integrate against. Likewise with warehouse management systems and timesheet systems. When a piece of software only has to do one thing, it means that there are often choices between them, so you can find one to fit your needs. When you use a large off-the-shelf ERP system, you don’t have that choice, you simply have to stick with the warehousing management system it comes with, even if it doesn’t quite work for you.
So when is bespoke software worth it? Choosing an off-the-shelf system, one way or another, means making the choice that when your business processes don’t match the software’s way of doing things, that you will change your business processes. If that isn’t going to work for you, then it’s time to go bespoke.