Perspectives on Business Modernization: Forget COTS—the Case for Customization

April 4, 2022 Derek Hills

Laptop with code and books

This is the first in Summit’s four-part series on business process modernization and IT-solution design. In this series, we dive into our perspectives on conventional methodologies to outline Summit’s approach to modernization. Our aim is to help organizations understand which solutions to implement and execute. Topics include:

  1. Bespoke applications
  2. Robotic process automation
  3. Cloud computing
  4. How to integrate solutions into your environment

Federal IT offices are facing increasing pressure to finally transition away from expensive legacy systems to more affordable, flexible, and easily maintained solutions, often enabled by well-known commercial off-the-shelf (COTS), software as a service (SaaS), or cloud-platform providers. These providers promise a host of benefits to their customers from the Office of the Chief Information Officer (OCIO), including lots of features, low up-front implementation costs, rapid implementation and easy scalability, “free” upgrades and features downstream, inherent “integration,” and predictable maintenance fees in the out-years—not to mention significant reductions in the on-staff technical team required to support the platform.

For cost-conscious IT offices, these very real benefits often prove too difficult to pass up, even when the office and its customers may be better served by a custom solution.

Custom solutions can present multiple risks, which OCIOs may reflexively seek to avoid, such as higher upfront costs, greater uncertainty about the product features they will ultimately receive, and the ongoing need for contract staff to maintain the solution after initial delivery. Since many OCIOs have been burned in the past by flawed or failed custom software initiatives, they are reluctant to take the plunge again, especially in an era of budget uncertainty. These circumstances only reinforce the allure of pre-built solutions and, in some cases, OCIOs may assume that a brand-name platform provider inoculates them from negative outcomes.

Third-Party Platform Implementations Have Their Own Risks

The above assumption comes with risks of its own, however. During the sales phase, providers with sprawling capabilities may claim they can do virtually everything—but frequently there are caveats that dictate how those things must be done and which are sometimes at odds with the agency’s prevailing or desired business processes. In these cases, the business may have to devote personnel resources to devising and executing manual work-arounds; the OCIO may have to create unanticipated middleware layers (or bolt-on subsystems) to address seemingly minor but ultimately critical gaps in functionality. In addition, the agency may have to pay for expensive customizations to the platform itself or wait for an improved capability in a future release—which may trigger another round of work-arounds, bolt-ons, and customizations. All of these possibilities impose ongoing costs; the only difference is which office absorbs them. And too often, with those additional costs, the business still may not receive the solution it thought it was getting when it bought the platform license.

Given these COTS, SaaS, and cloud-platform risks, OCIOs should take another look at custom-built solutions under certain conditions—provided that they do some due diligence beforehand. Questions to consider include how closely the platform’s core features satisfy the business’s highest-priority needs, and how seamlessly those capabilities will complement the agency’s desired business processes and related systems and tools.

When Is a Custom Solution Right For You?
Consider a custom solution if... Consider a commercial platform if...
You are addressing a novel or complex business problem in a dynamic operating environment and aren’t sure of the exact capabilities you will need. You understand many of your feature and capability needs up front and don’t anticipate significant changes year over year.

You’re serving multiple sprawling teams and must sacrifice too much of your preferred business process needs due to platform constraints.

You have no preferred business process or a small team that can adapt easily to platform-imposed constraints.
The platform’s approach to meeting your highest functional and business priorities leaves significant gaps that must be addressed via platform customization, bolt-on applications, or manual work-arounds. Your functional needs are or should be in step with predominant industrial standards, and any gaps in capability present an opportunity to align with common norms.
You want more control over the prioritization and delivery of enhancements that will drive business value in the future. The success of your business process and objectives aren’t dependent on future capabilities—that is, downstream platform improvements seem “nice to have.”
Your enterprise architecture function has established a standard toolchain of commercial products to quickly enable, scale, and integrate common technical capabilities (such as SSO, security, data warehouse, and version control). Up-front cost is your number-one factor influencing decision-making.


Many COTS, SaaS, and cloud-platform tools have been built to provide “good enough” capabilities suitable for a wide variety of customers through bulky configurations, but it’s worth considering whether “good enough” will provide the flexibility, control, and adaptability required for an agency’s operating context. If not, the agency may experience better outcomes with a custom solution—if the OCIO and their business partners can, respectively, manage technology risks and business priorities successfully.

Agile Enables Faster Delivery of High-Value Capabilities

One popular and effective way to do this is to execute the effort within an Agile framework, such as Scrum, while also leveraging standard resources (like development/integration platforms and pre-built “widgets”) from the enterprise architecture toolchain. Scrum’s inherent features enable biweekly delivery of working software, regular opportunities to assess the suitability of emergent features, and frequent re-prioritization of requirements as the implementation team learns more about the capabilities that are really driving value. This approach will not only elevate the key capabilities that distinguish the new solution from the old one, it will also improve the productivity and performance of the development team. More importantly, it will enable the earliest possible delivery of crucial features the business team needs to achieve its objectives and serve its taxpayer customers.

Over time, the value of the custom solution will increase exponentially as the agency incorporates new high-priority features into the platform. And since the agency is in full control of the development and maintenance life cycle, it has the flexibility to adapt as business needs change or as it learns which features provide greater or lesser value. In the latter case, the agency can double down on higher-value features while dialing back efforts on those which have borne less fruit—and do so on a timeline divorced from a third-party platform provider’s road map. Done right, a custom solution fanatically focused on the agency’s foremost business objectives has the greatest potential to create delighted stakeholders who are getting right-sized, tailored capabilities that align with their preferred business processes.

Photo by Emile Perron on Unsplash

Share This: