Customized vs. Configurable Software Solutions: Which Should You Choose?

July 20, 2016 Phil Montgomery

This article was originally published on npENGAGE


As we evolve into a society that increasingly relies on online—or cloud-based—software to manage everything from personal communications to banking needs, the debate over the pros and cons of configurable vs. customized software has arrived at the main stage. In many instances, the two words are used interchangeably, however, there are significant differences between the two.

Let’s start by defining each type of solution, respectively, in the context of grants management software. A configurable system is an out-of-the-box solution that allows the owner to easily personalize certain aspects of the system themselves, without the help of experienced software developers. Configurable software is flexible, scalable and can be continually shaped to meet an organization’s industry-specific and organization-specific needs.

A customized system is developed specifically and only for one customer, locking that organization into a static workflow that can only be changed by hiring cost prohibitive engineers to make updates to the system’s code.

The question on many people’s minds is: which one is the best choice for my organization? As the Chief Technology Officer at a software company, I have a strong opinion on the matter; configurable solutions are the path of the future and are the option that you should lean towards when selecting a software system. Below I’ll break down my reasoning for you.

Configurable Solutions

  • Implementation time is greatly reduced. Because you’re purchasing a system whose underlying structure is the same for all users, implementation can take as little as a month or less, and that typically includes an implementation specialist working with you to configure the system the way you want it from the start.
  • Volume of usage keeps the solution at the cutting edge of technology. With thousands of organizations using the same core system, the software provider receives constant feedback and is able to identify and incorporate the updates that will benefit the most users possible.
  • Updates to the system are typically free. Whereas a customized solution requires you to hire a software developer to make any changes or updates, providers of configurable systems constantly install updates to your system for you, without the need for any work or resources spent on your end. Plus, those updates are normally free (included in your subscription cost).
  • A large peer community is right at your fingertips. Most reputable providers of configurable solutions offer online communities of peers with whom you can exchange best practices and read about new and innovative ways others are using or configuring their system.
  • Configurable solutions carry a much lower total cost of ownership. You don’t pay for updates. Your provider likely makes free resources available to you such as user guides and trainings because they are relevant to all of their thousands of customers. Because customized solutions are one-offs, those types of resources and free updates simply are not available in the same way.

Customized Solutions

  • Implementation is drawn out and expensive. You’re having something built from scratch that only you are going to use. That takes a lot more time to complete, meaning you’ll be left in limbo while it’s being created and will likely pay vastly more due to the development hours involved.
  • Your system is static, does not evolve with the industry. As trends inevitably change the face of the giving community, you’re left stuck with the workflow you implemented years ago, including features that could be obsolete by now.
  • When you do update, it’s time consuming and costly. You pay a developer to come on site and make your updates, the need and nature of which you often determine yourself. Whereas with a configurable system, updates based on widely accepted industry best practices are installed for you remotely, quickly and at no additional cost.
  • You’re a peer group of one. No one else is using the same software as you, meaning you have no peers with whom to discuss system-related questions or ideas.
  • Much higher total cost of ownership. While it sounds alluring to have something tailor-built just for you, doing so incurs continual and unexpected costs, most of which are mentioned above. At the end of the day, you spend much more on a system that’s holding you back from embracing the latest industry trends and best practices.

I recently co-hosted a webinar,  Leveraging Technology to Achieve Results, with Art Johnstone, President of Grant Partners Inc. In this webinar we discussed the variables and choices the consumer is faced with these days when shopping around for a grants management solution. I think Art summed up the above quite nicely when he said this: “When an organization wants to build a customized system, they don’t necessarily know or incorporate some of the proven best practices for using online systems to manage grants… However, when they use a configurable solution, the pieces they have in that system that are configurable have been proven by lots of users over time, and the benefit of that is that it really keeps you focused and on track with a very workable, usable system.”

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