The Temptation and the Trap of Homegrown Systems

By Mike Raia Posted August 9, 2016

When talking to companies looking for workflow automation solutions we often find we're competing against a potential homegrown solution. This certainly isn't unique to workflow automation software vendors as the ability to build applications with internal resources has gotten easier over the years and development talent has become more and more available.

That means that building internally is always one possible option for companies with sophisticated IT organizations and sometimes it really is the best choice, depending on the use case. Organizations wisely perform the necessary due diligence of determining if existing resources can be leveraged. However, as we've seen, the decision to "just build" a workflow system is often simply delaying the inevitable, which is investing in a purpose-built third-party workflow system. Many companies realize this, which is reflected in the fact that the technical and development roles at many organizations have transitioned to become integrators, extenders and, at a higher level, architects.

Many companies have begun to realize this, which is reflected in the fact that the technical and development roles at many organizations have transitioned to become integrators, extenders and, at a higher level, architects.

The value of workflow automation software derives from the customization, rather than being hampered by it.

Depending on the type of software, the decision for buying over building may depend on the willingness of your business users to rethink or at least bend their business processes to fit the strengths of the software. Most software is customizable to one degree or another but often in may seem that the further you move in the direction of customization the less you reap the benefits that drew you to the software in the first place.

The good news in the case of workflow automation software is that it is designed to either mimic your existing business processes and/or improve upon them. Basically, the value of workflow automation software derives from the customization, rather than being hampered by it.

So depending on the nature of the business problem, “homegrown” applications can be adequate as temporary solutions but there are some important things to consider before building a solution internally for workflow automation:

Buy It or Build It Considerations

Speed

Consider how quickly the solution needs to be rolled out. Even in the most sophisticated and well-managed internal IT organizations, developing a new custom software solution can take several months or longer. IT needs to balance a department’s needs with the needs of the entire organization. A dedicated workflow automation system offers a great deal of configuration and can be up and running quickly while meeting very specific business needs. Lastly, consider these statistics:

  • The average large IT project runs 45% over budget, 7% over time, and delivers 56% less value than expected (The Project Management Institute).
  • One in six IT projects has an average cost overrun of 200% and a schedule overrun of 70% (Harvard Business Review).
  • 80% of teams say they spend at least half their time reworking completed tasks (Geneca).

Internal Skillsets

A major factor that significantly reduces the ROI of a custom solution (and in many cases, ultimately causes the endeavor to fail) is the lack of available personnel with proper skill sets. It takes many skills to design and deploy a business solution that is both scalable and extensible. It's likely that your technology resources do not include all of the skill sets necessary for launching, maintaining, scaling and improving a successful software solution.

"One in six IT projects has an average cost overrun of 200% and a schedule overrun of 70% Harvard Business Review)."

Total Cost of Ownership

The cost of the development team, the time spent on all phases of development (including changes, bug fixing, training, documentation, and updates) and the additional tools that may be required need to be considered before building and kind of solution. Consider this frightening statistic from McKinsey & Company, "17% of large IT projects (budgets $15M+) go so badly they threaten the existence of the company."

One-Off or Platform

A one-off workflow solution can be built for a specific need but IT and the organization need to consider workflow holistically throughout the organization (or the department, depending on the size). Will IT keep building niche solutions or take advantage of a platform that provides an ecosystem for rapidly building and reusing workflows in a centralized manner?

So the question becomes less about should IT build it from scratch and more about if business users can be empowered to "roll their own."

The Rise of the Citizen Developer

As I mentioned early on, the tools for building applications have become easier to use. In fact, with the right workflow automation solution, even business users can become "Citizen Developers" and produce their own workflow applications. So the question becomes less about should IT build it from scratch and more about if business users can be empowered to "roll their own."

Updates and Upgrades

Once an internal software solution is developed, the improvement cycle can become extremely slow. A solution may have been purpose-built for your needs today but your needs can change quickly once people are using it every day. What’s the development cycle internally? How soon can you expect changes and new features to be implemented?

Support

IT teams must support the applications they build. Every new system they build increases pressure on their support staff and they may not be allowed to scale resources to relieve the pressure. Pre-built solutions have experienced service and support teams that are dedicated to their product alone. They not only have extensive knowledge bases and documentation but they're updated regularly based on the questions and feedback we receive from customers every day.

Complexity vs. Impact

Workflow Management systems involve a great deal of complexity to build. Is the strategic impact on the business worth the internal effort required to build one from scratch? In some cases, a workflow management system can provide a distinct competitive advantage, but in most cases, the benefits are largely in the form of internal efficiency improvements.

Turnover

IT turnover is a fact of life. Often internal solutions are built leveraging the discreet knowledge of an IT resource, leaving a skill/knowledge gap when the resource moves on. Investing in a stable, proven solution means uninterrupted professional support.

The Final Decision

Ultimately, every decision to buy or build is unique to the organization, the use case and the level of need. However, many organizations are now looking at third-party systems first before considering the use of in-house development resources, especially considering the historical track record of large IT development projects. When it comes to workflow automation software it makes sense to strongly consider the benefits of rapid deployment, customization and lower total cost of ownership than internal development.

 

Many thanks to Wrike's excellent Project Management Statistics post.

Mike Raia

Marketing the world's best workflow automation software and drinking way too much coffee. https://about.me/mikeraia

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