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Tailored or off-the-rack?

01 Jul 2010

The software market is a vast and confusing place. There are solutions for everything and in most cases there’s a wide range to choose from; there are over 50 accounting packages sold in NZ alone. So you should be able to find a version that does what you want, right? Wrong.

Show me the consultant who fully understands all the intricacies of all 50+ accounting packages and how they can benefit or harm your business, and can explain it in a way that allows you to make a meaningful decision.

He doesn’t exist. So how are you going to choose? Go back to basics. Only deal with products/services that have established NZ representation and an established history.

  • Ask for verbal references and follow them up.
  • Define what you want and make them prove they can do it.
  • View samples of their work.
  • Make them speak your language and don’t be afraid to say “What?” if they starting talking in acronyms or jargon. One of the issues you will have to face is how much you are prepared to pay to get exactly what you want; off-the-rack or tailored.

Dollar for dollar, if they will do exactly what you want, off-the-rack solutions (eg: MYOB, Microsoft Office, etc.) will always be the best option. If not, think very carefully. They generally come with a limited number of configurable options that may make them bend to do what you want. But remember, if you can’t get someone to show exactly how it is going to work for you, then don’t assume that “maybe it can”; assume “no it can’t”.

Remember, the compromises you force on your staff with a solution that doesn’t do what it needs to can be considerably more expensive over time than paying for a solution that does do the business for you.

A typical scenario for us to get involved is an organisation with masses of Word documents, Excel sheets, emails, an accounting program and other bits and pieces. All these things work as they should, but what the organisation still doesn’t have is a solution that works the way they work.

Your next option is modular solutions. These offer various modules that can be added to support various operations as your organisation grows and evolves, so you only pay for what you need as you need at it. Effectively this is just a modification of the shrink-wrapped proposition: it either works for you or it doesn’t and if it doesn’t, it won’t.

If it does, then it can be a very sensible, cost-controlled way to grow your system. Now let’s take a walk on the wild side and consider custom-development. The first time you consider this, it is going to look about as sane as cordless bungy jumping. You can’t see it or touch it before you buy, there are all those scare stories about projects that went horribly wrong, and one way or another you are going to have to buy on faith.

Let’s go back to the tailor-made suit analogy. You can check out the tailor’s reputation. You get to pick the style and the fabric, you get your measurements taken, you have a contract with the tailor, and if he doesn’t deliver you have enforceable remedies just like any other contract. You need have no more risk than the off-the-rack alternative.

The one thing that a custom solution does force onto you is the need to really think hard about what you want. You are going to have to go into all the nitty-gritty detail rather than just sit back and be spoon-fed. You have to learn to express what you want accurately, otherwise you may get what you asked for, but this may not always be what you thought you wanted. This is not necessarily a bad thing; it can be a very useful growth process in itself.

Recently a client gave us very clear instructions for a module of a project. As we looked at it, we realised we could make some enhancements that would make very significant improvements to their brief. They were delighted and we all worked hard to deliver a high-quality outcome. They tested it and said it was excellent, but they now wanted it done totally differently.

Their new concept was even better, but it was very different from the original. They had to go through the development process to grow their understanding. At the end of the day it was money and effort well-spent.

So you pay your money and you take your choice; the important point is to understand what you really need, ensure that your choice actually fulfils that need, and that it is cost-effective.

Don’t make false economies and make sure the solution works for you, not you for the solution.