Whatever Happened To Bespoke?

Bespoke Software

Attitudes to the procurement of IT have changed radically over the past five years. Organisations have outsourced non-core functions and many are increasingly embracing generic cloud-based solutions to drive down costs and refocus on the core operations that underpin the business.

Yet why are these essential aspects of the business, the heart of competitive differentiation, being constrained by investment in off the shelf tools that fail to support real business needs and cannot deliver the scalability required to support business growth?

Bespoke software development, executed in an agile methodology, enables businesses to be more efficient and effective. It provides the tools that exactly support core business objectives with minimal risk and without incurring huge additional costs – indeed the total cost of ownership of a bespoke solution can often be lower than an off the shelf alternative.

When rethinking IT procurement it is essential to consider all the options – and in a world where innovation and agility is key to business transformation, bespoke development can be a fast track to competitive edge.

Considering the Options

Anyone with experience of IT knows about bespoke. Many will have experienced bespoke project development. Yet far too many continue to disregard the option of bespoke development at the outset, wrongly perceiving that bespoke adds cost and risk. This is a false perception. The truth is that bespoke is the only way to get a solution that is really fit for purpose.

So why does this attitude to bespoke persist? There is no doubt that high profile headlines about catastrophic bespoke development failure grab the attention of those tasked with committing budget. But the problems – albeit significant – that contributed to such failures cannot be attributed to bespoke development. This is not bespoke software; this is badly managed bespoke software development.

Consider, instead, the hugely successful, indeed, influential bespoke development projects that have been undertaken in recent years. From the iPlayer to LinkedIn, bespoke developed software is not only being used by millions of people but is also underpinning phenomenally successful operations.

In such cases, taking the bespoke route delivered a solution that exactly met business needs – from functionality to scalability – and provided the organisation with Intellectual Property that is worth a fortune.

Agile Approach

So what distinguishes the bespoke failure from the bespoke success? Many individuals, especially those that have worked in large organisations, have a very negative impression of bespoke developments. They have experienced constant delays, over runs and difficulty in achieving the depth of functionality required.

But it does not have to be that way. Agile methodologies are now an inherent part of many business operations, from marketing and PR to business development. Indeed, the agile approach has become an important aspect of business flexibility and ability to innovate and attain market differentiation. Extending this model to IT development and project management has been an essential shift in enabling businesses to align technology innovation with business objectives.

Agile development methodologies mitigate against the risk of failure in a number of ways. The approach is iterative, collaborative, highly visible and always creates a product. A fundamental aspect of the agile development process is a robust sign off process: relevant stakeholders have visibility of each stage and there is accountability at both client and developer organisations. There is close collaboration between developers and client organisation at every stage, with developers often sitting with end users during this highly iterative development process.

The combination of collaboration, visibility and sign off ensures individuals within both the client and developer organisations can spot failure early and react. As a result, it is unheard of for an agile led development to experience the type of disaster that grabs headlines. Instead, organisations achieve a project that is both on budget and on scope; and a product that directly matches business needs.

Indeed, using an agile methodology, time to market can be incredibly quick because it is possible to deliver a raw product very early on in the process. This enables the business to make money sooner rather than later whilst the development continues to be enhanced and improved. With an agile approach, organisations derisk the development, reduce the cost and, critically, rapidly achieve a solution that truly reflects business needs.

Making the Case

Having dispelled the bespoke myth regarding risk, it is important to balance the cost of bespoke against off the shelf. Undertaking a three to five year total cost of ownership comparison can be revealing. Whilst the bespoke development investment is loaded towards the beginning of the cycle, there are no on going licensing costs to consider. For any organisation planning expansion, adding in the costs of licenses and training for each new employee can rapidly decrease the appeal of an off the shelf solution.

And that, of course, is assuming the business achieves an application that is fit for purpose from day one. Which, in itself, is somewhat unlikely. Instead, most organisations have to invest in some degree of customisation to tailor the solution to meet specific needs. Take that step, and the business has just acquired a bespoke development by default, with all the disadvantages of on going license fees and upgrade costs. And that is assuming the vendor can still upgrade given the customisation that has been undertaken. The result can be the worst of both worlds – functional compromise and no future proofing.

Even worse, if the solution has not met business needs, what is the cost to the organisation in productivity reduction, poor efficiency, and lost opportunity?

Conclusion

Of course, for the majority of deployments, off the shelf works – there is no need to recreate the wheel. But at some point most organisations are likely to require a piece of software with functionality and features that are simply not available off the shelf. Indeed, in an era of cloud computing and viable outsourcing, bespoke is rapidly gaining ground as organisations recognise the value of innovation and agility in achieving growth and differentiation, especially in the digital economy.

Growing numbers of organisations are now leveraging the speed and collaborative nature of the latest development tools and agile methodologies to gain rapid access to truly innovative bespoke developments that are transforming business. As businesses take an increasingly radical review of the IT estate, isn’t it time to put bespoke back on the agenda?

Ben Gritz

Since 2000, Ben Gritz, Managing Director of Totally Communications, has overseen an extraordinary number of developments both for external clients and internal projects ranging from heading up the development of the first live cable TV chat service with YooMedia and NTL/Telewest at the age of just 23, to integration of Ebay's first ever "live" auction with icollector.com's auction service, to development of TC's 4th generation CMS system Pelorous which has now been opensourced. Outside of work Ben has a keen interest in Athletics having competing in his younger years as a sprint hurdler in the English Schools competition, AAA UK champs & the British League.