There is pressure on many organizations to incorporate digital technologies as part of the new way they want to do business. This pursuit of digital transformation requires them to invest in new business systems and platforms. A common theme I hear from executives implementing or selecting a new business platform is that they do not want to customize it and only use the out-of-the-box (OOTB) functionality. I understand the reasoning behind this strategy, and it has some merit, but I think this strategy is neither what they really want as well as what they really need. The decision to use OOTB was driven by past traumatic experiences where the previous system was so customized to a point it was unrecognizable with the original software. This resulted in a system that was fragile, could not have even small improvements implemented as it may take the whole system down and could not be upgraded.
The challenge is that our businesses are so unique that, for these enterprise systems, it is a certainty that you are going to need to configure or customize them to align with your business – especially for the duration you are planning on keeping the system. Without understanding that if you go down the path of attempting a purely OOTB solution, it will lead you to a dead-end where you will then, unfortunately, fall into the necessary customization. Starting off with a strategy of knowing you will need to customize, but want to have a system that will provide as much of the OOTB native functionality(and more importantly, is built to be customized) will result in a much more successful short, medium and long term strategy.
The Baggage of Past Customizations is Still Hurting Us
Most of the enterprise systems that we are in the process of replacing were designed decades ago. The general attitude of software vendors at that time was to create robust software that will be the one and only platform that a business needs. They believed that if they could lock-in your information in their proprietary systems that they, or their partners, would be the only ones that would allow you to customize your implementation. This, in turn, meant that when they were developing their solution, they did not consider the ease of allowing anyone else the ability to configure and customize. This created a huge amount of revenue for these companies and partners as their customers were spending two to three times more on services than on the software solution. It is important to understand this “follow the money” strategy as it gives a more realistic view – even if some do not want to admit to it.
This strategy is why so many customizations failed in the past. The majority of enterprise systems were not designed to be foundations that an organization can build on top of. The customizations had to use creative and innovative ways to get access to the information and leverage the system’s rigid structure to solve some of their business challenges. Even though the long-term effects of these customizations were not great, in the short and medium term, they produced a lot of value to the business.
Path to OOTB Thinking
By customizing our business systems when they were not designed to be extended, we created a solution that was fragile and which would never be updated. This now legacy and obsolete software is a key part of the business architecture, but it has become an obstacle that is slowing the organization from growing. The cost and risk of making any changes that would allow us to embrace new technology or an improved workflow are way too high. As time goes on, this becomes a bigger business liability. The current goal with this Frankenstein system is to “simply” keep them running as-is until they are replaced.
Now that it is time to invest in a new system, you are determined not to fall into the same trap that your company did previously. A common conclusion is that you will choose the next COTS (Consumer Off The Shelf) solution purely on OOTB functionality and plan only to use OOTB functionality (without customization). This would certainly ensure that you would not get into the same situation as before; however, it also would mean that you would not be able to have a system that more naturally aligns with your business.
Even though I completely understand how the decision of selecting and using OOTB functionality came to be a common strategy, there is a better strategy. One that takes into account past experiences as well as lets you adapt the system now and in the future to align with your continuously evolving business.
A More Resilient Strategy
Knowing that we do not want to get into the customization abyss as we did with previous solutions, but also understanding that for us to maximize the value of a system, we will need to have some level of customization. This leads us to look for a solution that has OOTB functionality that best aligns with our business but also is designed to be tailored by configuration and customization.
OOTB Foundation and Features
We need to continue to look for solutions that have a rich level of OOTB functionality that will allow us to do the basic operations. These OOTB functionalities will be core and foundational features that, in many cases, will allow us to implement our first phase in our agile implementation strategy. These core and foundational features should, as always, be prioritized by the goals that you are trying to achieve. Understanding how the system will evolve over time (through a roadmap) is also important as it will help you understand what to expect years down the road. In essence, we want to make sure that the system has ”good bones” that we can build on top of. Most of this is what almost everyone is doing when investing and selecting new systems.
Ability to Tailor the System
Another aspect that is just as important is to understand how these systems can be configured and customized. In today’s marketing lingo, many are using “configuration” or “no-code” or “low-code” instead of customization. There are differences which I will not get into here, but the key is to understand how well the system allows you to align it with your business. As well as how these types of “customizations” would affect the upgradability of the solution in the future.
This is where you will see many differences between systems and platforms. Some are designed to be tailored, while others are not. With the understanding and strategy of embracing that customization will be required and that you will need to have a solution that allows for it, it is extremely important to look for a system that is designed to be tailored.
The ability for customers to custom tailor systems is common marketing buzz at this time, and almost all vendors will say their system can be configured and/or customized. However, some of the systems are built from the ground up to allow for tailoring, while others were not. Therefore, even though you can customize their solution successfully, you will have a more narrow path of what is possible.
In today’s business environment, the need to update our enterprise systems to a new modern system will allow us to leverage many of the digital innovations available to us. When replacing these systems, we do not want to repeat the mistakes of our previous implementation and customize the solution to something that is fragile and not able to be improved.
Using a strategy of selecting a platform purely on OOTB functionality as well as planning on only using OOTB features (not planning on doing any customization) is swinging the pendulum too far to the other side. It is a business necessity to have the ability to adapt and evolve our enterprise systems to our quickly evolving needs, which cannot wait or depend only on OOTB functionality.
The strategy that is more in line with the current technology and business landscape is to select a system based on OOTB functionality, ensuring it has the key core foundational features required and that it is designed for you to be able to tailor it. Any system can be customized, but some systems are built from the ground up to allow you to build on top of it and tailor them. In essence, it is a key feature of the system. These systems will provide a more robust, resilient environment that can continually evolve over the years avoid software obsolescence due to un-upgradability.
We need to embrace customization but understand that not all current systems and platforms are built to be tailored or customized to your needs.