Customizing Software is NOT so bad

Many consultants talk about customizing software as if it’s akin to selling your soul to the Devil. They site a litany of reasons why it’s a bad idea – the software never works right again, you can’t upgrade, you become beholden to the programmer, there’s no documentation, the cost gets out of control, etc. I’ve talked to a number of consultants who actually have a rule about this…they will not customize software. Period.

I don’t get this. The fact is – what industry leading or successful company out there uses software out of the box exactly as it’s been written? Packaged software is written by definition for the lowest common denominator, that is, to fit the most number of company’s needs. Not necessarily your company or my company, but most companies. This is why many users of packaged software like Sage MAS 90 or MAS 200 or Quickbooks complain about the standard reports provided by the software. The reports aren’t designed for any business in particular. The reports are designed for all businesses in particular. Once something is designed for “everyone”, it meets the exact needs of “no one”. There is no way that historical industry leaders like Nike, GE, HP, IBM, Nordstrom, etc. are using the standard reports from their financial software. We know that there is no way that these companies or a company like Walmart is using even all the standard processes built into their software. I don’t know if these companies are using SAP, Oracle, JDE, or whatever, but I guarantee that they’ve got some special tweaks built into them that make the software specialized for them. General Motors probably uses standard reports 🙂

This is not to say that some of the concerns of “those consultants” aren’t valid. They are definitely worth considering and integrating into the decision making of how, when, or if to customize. Let’s address each of the typical concerns one at a time:

1. The Software Never Works Right Again

Well…sometimes that’s true. But you have to define a customization really well before doing it and have a testing plan once it’s done. Also, there are customizations and there are customizations. You have to be reasonable. You can’t bastardize a software so much that it’s not that software anymore. However, we have literally hundreds of examples of the software still working right after a customization.

2. You Can’t Upgrade

This is the big one, and usually the first thing everyone says when considering a customization. The issue is not that you can’t upgrade. The issue is that you have to upgrade the customizations TOO, and that this can be costly. Some enhancements are easy to upgrade, and some are not easy. It depends significantly on the type of software upgrade being proposed. For example, when MAS90 went from Version 3x to Verson 4x, it was a big deal for some modules. The data file structures changed completely as well as all the screens. Accordingly, for most customizations in this era, they had to be redone from scratch. This incurred significant cost investments for those clients who saw the need to upgrade and had to upgrade enhancements. Other upgrades, like from MAS90 Version 4.2 to Version 4.3 are not major impediments to upgrading enhancements. The data file structures stayed the same for most modules, and most screens were unchanged.

The issue is this – it’s not that you can’t upgrade. You just have to plan and budget for upgrading the enhancements. It’s just another component of the upgrade project. It’s neither good or bad. It’s just a project phase, the same as data conversion.

3. You Become Beholden to the Programmer

Certainly you become beholden to programmers. But, who are we fooling? At the end of the day, when you have an accounting & ERP software package, you’re beholden to someone anyway. Does it matter if you’re beholden to a programmer or non-programmer? When you implement software that’s running your business, you have to count on someone or some group to manage it for you. That’s just the way it is. You can count on project managers, consultants, programmers, support analysts, business analysts, and any combination of the above. These people can be on your staff or outsourced. It doesn’t matter. You just have to accept the fact that you’re counting on other people to help your business operate. And isn’t that just business?

4. There’s no Documentation

This can be true, but it doesn’t have to be true. When you engage someone to do ANY work on your systems, demand documentation as part of the deal. Problem solved.

5. The Cost Gets Out of Control

We’ve seen this happen a number of times, and there are a number of things you can do to prevent this. Some of things include having a project manager, having a budget, having a timeline, clearly defining the requirements and specifications, having milestones, and having a firm agreement related to the work being performed. Does this sound familiar? If so, it’s because it is familiar. It’s just like any other project. Costs can be contained or costs can get out of control. In order to keep them under control, you have to take control.

I know there are other reasons sited against customizations, but I think these are the ones we hear most often.

The bottom line, the thing to remember, is that customizations aren’t good and they aren’t bad. They’re just another tool to help you make your software work for your business, rather than making your business work to fit the software. And…that’s the point….