Bespoke development and off-the-shelf software: how to strike the perfect balance
When it comes to planning a digital transformation (DTX), businesses often have to overcome several hurdles, be that a lack of knowledge, an inability to bring on the right talent, cost, and mitigating risk.
With businesses across all industries accelerating their DTX initiatives over the past 12 months, one of the biggest questions their leaders face is what path they should take in adopting technology: an off-the-shelf solution, or partnering with a third-party vendor to build something bespoke.
Each comes with its own pros and cons, and the costs of getting it wrong can often deter business leaders from adopting any kind of technology at all. So, how can businesses identify the ‘correct’ option, and what if it’s not an either/or, but a combination of the two?
Off-the-shelf, and the case for no-code/low-code
A common outcome for businesses is purchasing an out-of-the box software solution. These solutions are ready-made, making them immediate, convenient and cost-effective, but inevitably, there are compromises between business requirements and the capabilities of preconfigured products. Even with customisation, off-the-shelf products tend to suit narrow scope requirements - performing one function well rather than offering a comprehensive solution, think Zoho or Salesforce for customer relationship management or Zendesk for customer service.
Seeking more flexibility, many businesses are moving towards the ‘halfway house’ of no-code / low-code development platforms. They’ve become so popular, in fact, that Gartner predicts that, by 2024, low-code application development will be responsible for more than 65% of all application development activity.
As the name implies, these platforms allow someone with little-to-no coding experience to quickly and easily build a variety of applications, allowing them to automate traditionally paper-based processes and become more efficient. They promise digital transformation that’s simple to achieve, and for a business this means limited risk, so in the current climate, it’s easy to see the appeal.
By empowering so-called citizen developers, businesses might be under the impression that they won’t have to spend both time and money recruiting a team of expensive professional developers with experience of translating business requirements into enterprise tech, and can instead rely on the power of these platforms to digitise at minimal cost.
However, while low-code/no-code platforms can be beneficial in the right circumstances, they have limitations that prevent them from becoming the sole solution to underpin a business’ digital transformation.
There are a number of reasons for this. Firstly, while it’s true that the coding expertise required is minimal compared to a seasoned developer, the use of microflows may prevent meaningful scaling. Microflows are visual representations that replace code, with developers instead able to drag and configure stencils instead. While this might be suitable for small projects, it quickly becomes unmanageable. Where traditional developers can write a handful of lines of code to add additional functionality, developers may have to drag and configure an exponentially greater number of stencils when their project has reached a certain size, a task that’s laborious and inefficient.
Another key issue is that of flexibility. Low-code/no-code platforms trap developers within the confines of that platform’s proprietary framework. This means that, when an inevitable bug or issue arises, resolving it efficiently would require accessing a framework that’s locked inside a black box. This slows down the entire development process, with developers forced to frequent online forums or liaise with customer support to speak to others who may or may not have encountered similar issues.
Similarly, developers are also locked into the database that underpins their platform of choice. Unfortunately, most no-code/low-code databases display notoriously poor, slow performance once they reach a certain number of rows and calculations to process, which harms the application’s functionality. While this isn’t an issue for smaller projects, it again contributes to a lack of meaningful scaling, meaning anyone planning their digital transformation around such a platform will inevitably hit a brick wall.
Finally, one of the biggest barriers comes by way of cost. Low-code development platforms can cost several thousand £/$ a month for a single license, with a multi-year commitment sometimes required. This puts these platforms well out of reach of smaller businesses, while putting it in the multi-million price range for larger enterprises.
An alternative option is partnering with a third-party software solutions developer. These external vendors work with businesses on bespoke software solutions that, unlike low-code/no-code, are built from the ground up to be tailored to specific requirements.
Naturally, undertaking a larger, more bespoke project comes with a higher level of risk and a bigger financial outlay, but a good software partner will work with the business to roadmap the product and strategy ahead of development, minimising risk by ensuring there are no potential dead-ends without a clear goal or return. They’ll also work on creating mock-ups and pilot projects to act as a testing ground for the business, providing confidence to the key stakeholders by demonstrating the value and ROI the technology can generate.
The result is a unique technological solution that, unlike low-code/no-code or an off-the-shelf solution, provides businesses with a true competitive advantage. It also means that, over time, the business and the vendor become completely intertwined. This means that the developers know the business and its technology inside and out, enabling them to continue to develop & iterate quickly and more flexibly than would otherwise be possible.
Naturally, the bespoke nature also remedies some of the aforementioned issues of low-code/no-code platforms; custom systems can handle complexity without impacting performance; the debugging process is streamlined; and it’s easier to meaningfully scale.
The result is true business agility, with businesses gaining the ability to be both proactive and reactive to changing market conditions.
Mix and match
While businesses often focus more on the ‘digital’ rather than the ‘transformation’, the overhauling of technology impacts every department. Business processes evolve; entirely new teams are built, changing recruitment; and organisation and HR are restructured around technology, to name a few examples. It’s a huge undertaking, and one that is incredibly difficult for any business to keep up with, especially while simultaneously ensuring the smooth day-to-day running of every day processes.
While the two paths have their distinct pros and cons, the answer lies somewhere in the middle. Even when a business has a clear vision, strong leadership, technical skills and internal resources, they will almost certainly have to rely on one or more off-the-shelf products to complement their third party resources for the delivery and support of software.
Businesses should partner with third-party technology vendors for specialist, custom development to deliver the backend systems, including technologies and solutions like complex automation, scheduling or enterprise-grade mobile workforce.
Meanwhile, this should be complemented with off-the-shelf solutions for their CRM or IP Telephony Systems, with a business’ internal resource used for managing deployment, testing and first-line support, with close collaboration with their third-party development team when needed.
By marrying the two approaches, businesses can take advantage of the differentiation and competitive advantage that bespoke technology provides, and the convenience, immediacy and cost-effectiveness of an off-the-shelf solution.
The result is a true digital transformation, one that provides scalability, business agility, and differentiation, while laying the foundations for further iteration and development.