Off-the-shelf or tailored, bespoke software?

SEEOcta Applications: Off-the-Shelf vs. Bespoke Software

| | Director Business Unit E-Invoicing/SAP&Web Process, SEEBURGER
SEEOcta Applications

Bespoke software or off-the-shelf software? This question is always on the agenda when preparing a new IT project. The answer depends on a number of factors. Read on to find out the pros and cons of both when choosing the best software for your organization.

Part of our SEEOcta IT series, this article looks at the pros and cons of bespoke software versus off-the-shelf software. In further posts from the ʽapplicationsʼ perspective, we look at API management, and in a two-parter, at workflow.

The SEEOcta blog series highlights the eight most important perspectives for successful project management. Discover all the areas you need to consider when planning digitalisation and integration projects in your company. Armed with the ideas and knowledge in the articles, you will have a solid foundation for planning your IT project and a guide to help you ensure that no one gets left behind.

Off-the-shelf or bespoke software? A comparison.

When looking to acquire new software, there is always the question whether your company’s needs are better served by purchasing commercial off-the-shelf software or a bespoke solution. Off-the-shelf software is a finished product designed to appeal to a number of organisations with one, common solution. Conversely, bespoke software, also known as custom or customised software, is tailored to a client’s specific, individual needs.

What do you wish to achieve when changing to new software? Essentially, you need to be looking at the following aspects:

  • Saving costs
  • Security
  • A future-proof solution
  • Flexibility
  • Simplifying standard processes and
  • Continuous development (e.g. to take account of changing legislation).

When are these needs better served by an off-the-shelf solution and when by custom software? Let’s start by taking a closer look at off-the-shelf software.

Off-the-shelf software

Off-the-shelf software has been developed for a large number of users, which gives it certain advantages:

  1. Better known and more widely used
  2. The users and developers tend to have better skills in the software as so many people use it regularly
  3. Lower acquisition costs
  4. Strongly orientated towards open standards
  5. Available at short notice
  6. Not dependent on a small, select group of programmers

How customisable is off-the-shelf software?

Despite being designed as a one size fits all solution, off-the-shelf software tends to offer considerable possibilities to configure it to your specific needs. This customisability may allow you to reduce – or even eliminate – the discrepancy between your organisation’s needs and the functional scope of the software – all at remarkably little effort.

Essentially, off-the-shelf software can be made to fit your company’s needs in one of three ways:

  1. Parametrization
    Choose and combine programme functions by selecting different programme modules
  2. Configuration
    Modularise and choose the elements you need
  3. Custom programming
    Customise your off-the-shelf product by programming in individual features and functions.

The standardised software systems of today make it easy to integrate third party systems through their many open interfaces (APIs). Adapting or extending off-the-shelf software is therefore relatively straightforward. However, in practice, standardised software rarely succeeds in mapping the full range of functions in legacy systems, some of which have evolved over several decades. This can lead to users unwilling to accept the new software. When launching your IT project, there are a number of techniques from change management which are very useful for increasing user acceptance. However, there is often a certain point where it is easier to map the features and functions you require through purchasing software made especially for your company’s needs.

Bespoke software

Bespoke software is tailored to the exact needs of an organisation. Sometimes, existing processes can’t be easily adapted to the features and functions offered in out-of-the-box software. However, compared to standardised software, the costs and time involved in developing a bespoke software solution are considerably higher and the complexity in developing an individual software solution is often underestimated.

Fundamentally, there needs to be close dialogue between the individual departments and the software developers throughout the entire development process. In contrast to customised software, standard software can be tested before purchase and experienced in actual use by other organisations. This option is rarely possible with a bespoke solution. Therefore, before deciding on customised software, the company should consider the following questions:

  • Is there a suitable off-the-shelf solution which would cover our requirements?
  • What strategic benefit would we have from bespoke software, which cannot be provided by standard software?
  • Is this benefit worth the higher cost of a bespoke solution?
  • Is there another IT partner that could maintain and further develop the custom software should the original supplier no longer be available?
  • Does our organisation have enough time and knowledge to actively mentor the development process?
  • New software usually requires a further investment of 10-20% of the original budget for monitoring the software after it has gone live. Is this available?

These are the most basic questions which need to be answered before starting a new software project. The company econtea GmbH from Berlin has put together a comprehensive guide (German) to choosing a suitable bespoke software solution.

The following summarises the main arguments for choosing off-the-shelf or bespoke software:

Comparison of off-the-shelf vs, bespoke software.

Figure 1: Comparison of off-the-shelf vs, bespoke software. (Based on:


There is rarely a scenario in which either off-the-shelf or bespoke software is a 100% fit. The decisive factors are the costs, time and manpower you will need to implement your specific requirements, and whether the solution you choose to invest in is future-proof. The current trend is clearly on the side of off-the-shelf software, as many companies do not have the know-how or resources necessary for the development and updating of bespoke software. In order to find the best possible software on the market to cover your organisation’s needs, you need to be willing and able to conduct a professional software selection process and conduct comprehensive market research. An experienced IT partner can help you here.

This post is part of the SEEOcta series. Look at our blog category SEEOcta and use the search term SEEOcta to find further interesting posts on launching a new IT project.

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Rolf Holicki

Written by:

Rolf Holicki, Director BU E-Invoicing, SAP&Web Process, is responsible for the SAP/WEB applications. He has more than 25 years of experience in e-invoicing, SAP, Workflow and business process automation. Rolf Holicki has been with SEEBURGER since 2005.