Canned vs. Custom: What Software Solution Is Right For You?

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If there is anyone who understands the pain accrediting agencies feel, it’s me. Naturally, the people who work for those agencies feel the pain more acutely, but for the past 15 years, I’ve watched many accrediting agencies agonize over manual, inefficient processes. I’ve seen organizations use up to eight different types of software to house and share data—or different divisions within the same company use discrete, unintegrated platforms. Much like you’re wondering right now, I often thought, “Why in the world would any organization want to house data in unconnected systems, instead of one that covers the entire workflow of an organization?”

Of course, the answer wasn’t that they wanted to. They just didn’t have a better way. In working with clients to streamline and automate these workflows, we’ve come across a few key misconceptions to question the next time you look for ways to increase efficiency and reduce costs around your processes. Some may surprise you. Interestingly, these tend to apply as much outside the accreditation world as within.

Misconception 1: Custom is Costly

It’s happened more times than I can count—a prospective client has told me that a canned product is less expensive and a much more mature platform. Even if that were true, what is the cost? Canned products are, well, canned. They force you to change your processes to fit in that can, when it should be the other way around.

Your business needs and processes likely evolved for a reason. Don’t change them, and expect everyone in the organization to adapt, to fit a software product designed for someone else.

For an organization with a unique structure and distinct challenges, custom software delivers the precise functionality tailored to fit you. It’s built to conform to your business requirements and workflow. That’s not just a nice-to-have. Purpose-built software increases productivity for everyone using it, as there’s no need to reengineer for processes that don’t quite fit or navigate around features you don’t need.

Don’t let yourself be scared off by the word “custom.” Custom solution providers generally aren’t starting from scratch. They take a modular, flexible and mature product, then tailor it to fit your organization like a glove. As a result, they can often create the ideal solution quickly and efficiently.

I’ve worked with dozens of accreditation agencies in my career—and spoken in-depth with many more. Even though it’s one category, I can assure you—every agency is different. No off-the-shelf product will suit everyone’s needs. Bottom line: Canned just can’t cut it.

Misconception 2: A Big Name Means More Choice or Better Service

In reality, custom software gives you a tremendous degree of control. You and your team can be involved from day one, contributing ideas, defining requirements, and identifying the data and relationships that reveal relevant KPIs. You may decide to build in features that only matter to your organization—and you can do that. What’s more, you can forecast how your technology and your organization will change over time, and design the software to grow with you.

There’s another immeasurable benefit that comes with building a custom software solution—a deep, trusting partnership. As my team and I create custom workflow systems, we gain a deep understanding of the client’s challenges, processes and people. We become invested. As a result, we’re not just focused on improving internal processes, we want to continue to find ways to make the software work harder as the relationship goes on. In addition to clients becoming dear, trusted friends, this leads to incredibly powerful technology solutions.

Misconception 3: Canned Means Ready to Run

While some industries can take advantage of off-the-shelf software, many niche categories—such as higher education accreditors—either have to adapt to existing solutions or create their own. That’s why so many have the cobbled-together systems I described earlier.

It may be true that, when choosing a stock solution, the initial cash outlay for software or seat licenses might be lower. That tends to change when the software is deployed. Consultants often charge an arm and a leg to customize products like Microsoft® Dynamics, Great Plains (now Microsoft® Dynamics GP) or Sage software. Some software disrupts the ability of other platforms to perform, and that will take time and effort to repair. Then there’s the learning curve, as employees adjust the current workflow and create workarounds in processes to make the software suit your needs.Off-the-shelf software is rigid and tends to resist change, making it unable to expand to accommodate changes in your business. Upgrades and fixes come at the vendor’s timetable, not yours. And if the vendor phases out a release or the whole package, you’re at their mercy—forced to choose upgrading or dealing with an obsolete, unsupported tool.

Unfortunately, there is no silver bullet—no one size-fits-all solution for accreditation agencies. In an effort to make your organization more efficient, be careful that you don’t choose a software solution that makes things even more complicated.

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Posted by Helen Levinson

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As owner of Indigo Interactive, Helen Levinson has led the development of the Jura accreditation management system, a workflow solution that is designed to adapt to each client’s individual processes. Helen is recognized as a gifted business leader who writes and speaks frequently on the subjects of technology, women in business, and opportunities for business in social media.