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Posted Monday, August 23, 2021 by Jason Wintersteller

Build vs. Buy: Why COTS is the Smarter Choice for Human Services

Many human services agencies falsely believe their technology needs are so unique to justify building their own custom solution. In the long run, however, this could be a very costly mistake. A commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) product that can be configured to meet your needs and evolve over time can almost always do the job—with a considerably smaller strain on resources and faster time to value.

Think about it this way: you’d essentially need to build out a new business within your business to successfully develop, deploy, and sustain a solution that delivers long-term value and keeps up to date with caseworkers' needs. You’d either have to pull existing IT staff away from the work they were hired to do or you’d need need to hire, train, and retain an entirely new team to support your vision.

Either way, the costs will add up and you’ll miss out on the benefits an outside partner would bring.

Forbes Technology Council’s article, “Build Vs. Buy: Why Most Businesses Should Buy Their Next Software Solution,” expands on this point:

“An organization’s expertise is generally not developing B2B software solutions. Why spend countless hours having your best people -- or hiring new people -- architect a solution that already exists and is proven in the market? Generally, a vendor has already solved the same problem hundreds of times, therefore bringing clients the benefits of best practices based on others’ experiences.”

Even Northwoods—a company that’s solely in the business of building human services technology—recognizes that we need to partner with other vendors in certain areas like security or analytics to provide our customers with the most innovative, best-of-breed solution.

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What do you need to successfully build human services technology?

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Do You Have the Right Resources to Build a Custom Solution?

Before you start down the path of building your own solution, consider these questions to make an honest assessment as to whether you have the right resources to be successful:

  • How will we decide what to build? What features or functionality takes priority (e.g., content management, forms management, back-end workflows, security, etc.)? How do we unify all these components into a system our users will benefit from?
  • How many people across the organization will need to provide input? What if they have conflicting requests? Can we realistically meet or exceed expectations?
  • How long will it take us to build a solution from scratch? What will it cost? What’s the opportunity cost to my agency until things to get up and running (e.g., turnover and delays in reporting)? Can we keep up with service demand while we wait?
  • Does our expertise outweigh the benefits, best practices, and innovation that an outside vendor with proven success in the human services market would bring to the table?
  • Are there rules or regulations in place that will dictate the platforms or tools we’re required to use to build something? Can we truly create the best user experience within these constraints?
  • How do we ensure the solution is built to evolve and scale with our business processes? Can we get ahead of what’s next or will we constantly be one step behind?
  • Do we have people with the right skill set (think researchers, designers, developers, quality assurance, etc.) to build something that provides long-term value? What other projects/priorities will they have to put on hold to make time for such a big project?
  • Once the solution is built, who will implement it? Who will maintain it? Who will support it? Who will train users to ensure maximum adoption?
  • What’s the succession plan if the person or team who designed the solution leaves? Who will be able to provide support or make updates?
  • How much risk are we assuming by choosing this path? Are we confident enough that we’re willing to put our jobs on the line if things don’t go as planned?

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The Verdict: COTS > Custom Build

At the end of the day, technology projects gone wrong have cost people their jobs and cost agencies their reputations for being good stewards of taxpayer dollars. Unless you’re completely confident in your ability to deliver the absolute best solution and user experience for human services caseworkers, you may want to reconsider starting down the build-it-yourself path.

This blog post is based on our technology toolkit that guides human services agencies through the complex IT buying process. Download the full guide to learn more about what to look for in a solution, how to justify your request to purchase something, and how to ensure long-term success.

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Jason Wintersteller, Director of Product, Northwoods Jason Wintersteller's penchant for asking questions and probing deeper into problems led him down the path to become a product designer. As the problems he encountered became more complicated and multi-faceted, he found himself interested in a more holistic product approach. Today, as director of product, Jason is still asking questions to envision solutions and design products that address that problem instead of treating the symptoms.

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