Please enjoy this blog co-authored by Caitlin Peters, Senior Manager of Business Operations, Ropes & Gray and Stephanie Godley, Sr. Manager of Knowledge Management & Library Services, Ropes & Gray.
Once you have identified a pressing need for a technology solution to a knowledge management, marketing, or practice support issue, often the question arises – should we buy or should we build? The first step is to outline your core requirements. Once these are identified, take time to research third-party solutions. Then it is time to go through the exercise of considering whether to build your own custom solution. Even if there is a product out there that you can buy or lease, thinking through the pros and cons of building your own solution will help you better understand your needs. Do not forget to look at products your organization already owns. With a little ingenuity, could those be modified, combined, or re-engineered to solve your current problem? Whether you are looking at an experience management system, a knowledge base, a workflow tool or something else, conduct your due diligence before proceeding. Time spent up front evaluating your options will pay off in the long run. Below are some key considerations and questions to ask when determining whether to build an in-house solution or pursue a third-party option.
Bespoke Versus Out-of-the-Box: If there is no vendor tool available, you may have no choice but to build your own solution. Alternatively, if there is a product that does just what you need, don’t reinvent the wheel. Since it is rarely that cut and dry, you will need a highly detailed requirements list and the stamina to put third-party products through a close review. Match your requirements to what the tools on the market offer. Where are the short-comings? How critical is the functionality that the third-party product does not offer? Are there one or two functions you could do without? Take a hard look at how important and unique your needs really are. Would a vendor build them into the product for you?
Best Practices & Consultations: Keep in mind that experienced vendors have often developed products or features based on customer needs and feedback. Vendors can provide recommended best practices, benchmarking, and other guidance based on their work with other clients through implementations and user support mechanisms. Plus, you get the benefit of other customers’ enhancement requests that you may not have even considered. Ask to speak to other customers who have implemented the product.
Control: Is the vendor established and likely to support the product for the foreseeable future? How often does the vendor release updates? Do they allow for customizations? How do they handle enhancement requests? What are their support hours and what is their service level agreement? What are the remedies for outages? Be sure you understand what the relationship with the vendor is going to be and how responsive they are going to be to your needs.
Cost: Adding up all the costs associated with buy or build options is not an easy feat. Buying means purchase and annual maintenance costs; leasing means annual subscription fees; and don’t forget to calculate any implementation, integration, or customization costs, whether directly with the vendor or through consultants. Watch for contract clauses that raise costs significantly based on an office expansion or increased lawyer headcount. Building in-house eliminates the purchase, maintenance and subscription fees. However, internal teams must often be supplemented by new hires, consultants, and temps. Internally, there is also the very important question of opportunity cost: If your IT team builds your tool, most likely something else gets pushed down their priorities list or your solution ends up at the end of a long list of projects. Where does your need fall into the bigger picture?
End User Documentation & Support: If you pick a third-party solution, make sure to understand what the vendor will provide by way of marketing materials, tutorials, training, and call support for both in-house administrators as well as end users in your organization. If these are well done, they can save you countless hours of drafting your own materials, providing training, and meeting the need for on-demand support. Putting time and effort into building a system is great, but getting the adoption and usage is essential to have a successful product. What will your support look like during and after launch from either your in-house or vendor team? Can the assistance be maintained?
Internal Bandwidth & Expertise: Legal organizations have relatively small IT departments and an unending pipeline of projects. Is your need a priority? How quickly can your internal team develop a solution? Will there be a project manager to ensure that development stays on pace, on budget, and in scope? Does your team have the necessary skills to build the product? How agile are they with making fixes and changes? Will they develop a tool that can easily be maintained, scaled up, and integrated with other core systems? If the developer leaves, will others be able to step in? Make sure you understand the full extent of the time, expertise, and effort required.
Security: Your IT security team will want to vet any third-party options, whether these are on-prem, cloud or hybrid tools. Make sure security is reviewed early in the process to address any potential concerns. Don’t let security issues be overlooked and become a road-block at the end of your project.
Speed & Urgency: Are people clamoring for a quick start? If so, third-party tools are often faster to implement unless they require a great deal of customization or integration with your other internal systems. On the other hand, they may be slower to add features and enhancements.
Build or buy decisions need to take into account a number of factors. Weighing the pros and cons including cost, support, and time can take a fair amount of time. Putting the time and effort in upfront to answer these questions will help you make the best decision for your firm’s needs.