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When off-the-peg becomes bespoke: 10 questions to ask about your “standard package”

There's a definite trend in the IT world to move away from completely bespoke software to implementation of standard packages. Many advantages come from this approach:

  • Code tested & proven in a wider population of real world users
  • Standard models make it easier to recruit or source appropriately skilled staff
  • Workflows and interfaces benefit from research across the industry
  • The cost of acquisition and support benefits from economies of scale

However, there's a hidden side to this. May of the powerful, versatile systems on the market can be tailored to a specific organisation's needs, and that is where the fun starts. Custom data models, workflows, interfaces and even modules are written to meet ad-hoc business needs. Over a period of time the customised system can diverge significantly from the default “out of the box” install. Unless carefully managed, this can lead to a situation where the impact of patches and upgrades is no longer straightforward.  

  1. Are extensions to the data model documented? It's not unknown for a major release from a packaged application vendor to come with a significant change to the data model. Do you know how this will impact your customisations, with the associated impact on planning and testing an upgrade?
  2. What custom logic have you implemented? Do your business processes rely on scripts or code that manipulates the data – and if so, who is documenting these and reviewing the impact of changes to the vendor's APIs?
  3. Where does your data come from? Do you pull data from external systems, and if so what measures are in place to audit the integrity of data over time – for each data item is there a single system of record or do multiple systems need to be synchronised?
  4. Do you have an information lifecycle management policy in place? I've come across instances where a transaction oriented system degrades over time as the volume of data stored grows to several year's worth. How much data should be retained in the operational system, and how much should be archived/warehoused? Does data need to be archived or even deleted to meet legal or other requirements?
  5. Are workloads appropriate for the database design? Complex reporting needs can have a significant impact on the performance of a transactional system.
  6. Are you aware of the product roadmap and lifecycle? If the system is business critical, as many major implementations are, is your organisation's roadmap and lifecycle plan for the product aligned with the vendor?
  7. Do you have an exit strategy? What if the vendor ceases trading or ceases support for the product following an merger or acquisition: are you regularly reviewing alternatives as part of your business continuity planning?
  8. Do you keep track of ad hoc or custom reporting needs? Are there better ways of making data sets available to your power users, and are there spreadsheets based or other reports that should be maintained and supported by IT?
  9. Do you have information flows that cross boundaries in your organisation or between your organisation and others? Do you audit data exposure for both day-to-day operations and support to ensure compliance with your own information security policy and other legal or contractual constraints?
  10. Do you regularly audit business processes – especially when they rely on customisation – to make sure they are the most appropriate and efficient? Are some things only done because “we've always done it that way?”

About Matthew Kabik

Matthew Kabik is the former Editor of Computer Aid's Accelerating IT Success. He worked at Computer Aid, Inc. from 2008 to 2014 in the Harrisburg offices, where he was a copywriter, swordsman, social media consultant, and trainer before moving into editorial.

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