As with most technology needs these days, you could choose a product that already exists or build your own. This is similar to the process of deciding whether to buy an already–built house or build one to your unique specifications. Before you begin looking for or talking to contractors you have to decide what you need and what you can afford. That should also be the first step when looking at technology tools.
Step 1: Analyze your needs and define your requirements.
When looking at any type of technology, before looking to see what’s available, you need to analyze your needs and determine your business requirements. Some of the questions to ask are:
- What is the problem the tool should solve?
- What is/are the business objective(s) for the tool?
- Who will use it?
- When do we need it?
- What is our budget?
- What is the expected ROI?
Often, the best approach is to put together a team of people to define the requirements. Include the business owners and others who have a stake in the outcome–and don’t forget IT.
Step 2: Research and evaluate existing tools.
After defining your requirements, do the research to determine if there are existing tools you can purchase or license that will accomplish your objectives. When researching the existing tools, consider:
Do these features meet our requirements?
There may not be one product that will match your needs exactly. You may find an off–the–shelf tool will do 80% of what you need it to. Will that be enough? How will you handle what’s missing? Is the tool customizable? You may need to prioritize your requirements.
Are there features we won’t use?
An off–the–shelf product is designed to appeal to a wide audience, so it would be rare that every user would use every feature, but would you be paying for a lot of extras you won’t ever use? If all you need is a two–bedroom bungalow, it doesn’t make sense to buy a mansion just because that’s all that’s available. Perhaps building your own might be more cost–effective.
Shall I purchase or license the product?
When considering costs, you may need to decide whether to buy or lease—or in software terms, license—the product. Some vendors offer both purchase and license options. Others offer one or the other. How do the costs compare? Is it within my budget?
- Purchasing considerations: Purchasing the product may require a bigger initial investment, but may be less expensive over time. Customization may also be an option with some products at additional cost. Support, training, maintenance, and upgrades may or may not be included in the price. Many vendors provide incremental upgrades to fix bugs at no cost, but major upgrades would need to be purchased. This is not always the case, though, so it pays to check.
- Licensing considerations: Licensing involves either a monthly or yearly fee that may be based on the number of users. Upgrades are generally included in a licensing agreement. You don’t own the product, so customization is either not an option or limited. This might be a good option if you have a limited budget. It may be more cost–effective if being used for a limited period or if product upgrades are frequent and it is important to you to have a current version. As with the purchasing option, you’ll want to find out about product training and support. You’ll also need to consider security if the application is hosted outside of your company’s firewall.
- How long will it take to implement?
An advantage of off–the–shelf products is that it can generally be implemented much more quickly than when building your own solution. Of course, if a lot of customization is required, then that will require extra time. Don’t forget about your employees who will use the tool—communication and training time needs to be considered.
How will this work with our other systems and processes?
Depending on the tool, you may need to consider integration with your other systems. How will that work? Will you be supported? You should also consider your business processes. Will the system support your current processes or will your processes need to change to work with the new system? Having to change or create new processes is not always bad. Sometimes, implementing a new software application forces you to put process in place where none existed.
Step 3: Consider building a custom application
In some cases, it may be either necessary or more cost–effective to build your own tool—either in–house, if you have the resources and expertise, or using a vendor with experience in custom development. There may not be a tool that exists for the problem you are trying to solve, or perhaps the existing tools are not a good match for your needs.
As with an off–the–shelf tool, you need to consider cost, time to implement, training, support, and maintenance. Building a custom application will generally take longer to implement than an off–the–shelf product, but you get a tool tailored to your needs. People automatically think custom development will cost more than an off–the–shelf product. That is not always true. Remember the bungalow–mansion example? Rather than purchase off–the–shelf software that has many features you don’t need, it may be more cost–effective to build a custom tool. And if you need to customize the application or integrate it with your existing systems, the time and cost may well exceed the cost of building it from the ground up.
If you decide that you’d like to explore the build option, but don’t have the internal resources available, please contact fivestar* to see how we can help.