What Not To Ware: Buying Off-the-Rack Intranet Software

By Paul Chin

Originally published in Intranet Journal (27-Jul-2006)

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Why is it mannequins always look so good modeling clothes? What's their secret? They don't have a head, can't stand under their own power, and let's face it, their range of motion is just plain sad. Yet it looks as though the clothes they're wearing were made specifically for them.

Well, the answer's simple: Mannequins are perfectly proportioned and symmetrical—chiseled more to resemble Greek gods and goddesses than the majority of us—to best show off the merchandise. But clothes aren't meant to be worn by mannequins; they're meant to be worn by people, in every shape and size. These variables can't always be addressed with a standard small, medium, and large—at least not without a little bit of alteration.

When it comes to intranets, the question of tailoring from scratch versus buying off-the-rack comes up repeatedly. I'm often asked whether it's really worthwhile to build an in-house intranet with all the software packages floating around nowadays. Is there really a difference between the two? Yes, it's the difference between having something made to measure—tailored specifically for your body—as opposed to buying off-the-rack in a standard size that might not fit the way you want it to.

But tailor-made, as appealing as that sounds, isn't always the right decision. It really boils down to the particular needs of your organization and choosing the right tool for the job—and if that tool already exists, why spend the time and effort remaking what's already available?

Why Companies Buy Off-the-Rack

The decision to buy and implement an intranet software package is sometimes made by choice and sometimes made by consequence. I've always maintained that large-scale corporate projects are a compromise between what you want to do and what you're able to do. Too many factors affect the outcome of such projects: deadlines; financial, human, and technical resources; pre- and post-production support; future plans for expansion. The list goes on and on.

Companies implement off-the-rack intranet software for many reasons. Some of the more common include:

Lack of in-house expertise
One of the main reasons for choosing an off-the-rack intranet solution is because there's simply no one in-house with the technical know-how to build one from scratch. Attempting to do so may force non-techies to a have to overcome a very steep learning curve—in terms of technology and process. This is often the case with smaller, non-technology based organizations that don't have dedicated IT resources. Software, on the other hand, provides you with a ready-made solution to work off of.

Lack of time
Sometimes, even if you have the technical resources to build an intranet, you might not have the time to do it. IT staff might be tied up in other projects, and it might be financially infeasible to hire new IT staff or consultants. Buying a solution will make a lot more sense if you don't have the luxury of time—especially if there's already a product on the market that does the majority of what the company requires.

No special requirements
If it fits, wear it. Software makers develop their wares with a standard set of the most commonly used features in today's intranets. So, if you find a product that already does what you need, why reinvent the wheel? Even if it's missing a few things, most software should be flexible enough to allow you to tailor it to your specific needs—if it doesn't, move along and keep shopping.

Short system lifespan
When an intranet is only needed for a short period of time—such as for a special project or event it doesn't make sense to build a system (unless you have very specific needs that aren't offered by any vendor). These types of systems are usually time sensitive, and the development time required to build something might end up exceeding the actual usage time.

Caveat Emptor: Problems with Intranet Software

With the convenience and plethora of off-the-rack software, it may take a bit of shopping time to find something that fits properly. Before buying anything, you need to be mindful of some off-the-rack pitfalls:

Limited feature set
Ever notice how European manufacturers' clothing runs smaller and fits closer to your body than the relatively loose and boxy fits of North American clothing? That is because every manufacturer has its own definition of what customers are looking for. Organizations' requirements vary and can't always be put into those standard software molds. You're often limited to what you can do by the software's feature set. That's when you'll have to compromise: Find something that fits you as close as possible and then tailor it to your specific needs—provided the software is flexible enough to accommodate user changes.

Lack of support (or expensive support)
When intranets are built in-house and you have a question, all you have to do is pick up a phone. When you buy a software package, however, technical support may be hard to come by, or the myriad of options—phone support, e-mail support, IM support, annual subscription, pay-per-call—can become costly in the long run. It's possible to get third-party support from discussion groups, but you never really know who's on the other end of these forums or what their credibility and experience is. For all you know, it could be representatives of a competing company practicing some shadowy stealth marketing to discredit the software you just implemented.

Software and Vendor Longevity
Software makers and their wares come and go. Basing your intranet on someone else's tool puts you at the mercy of the vendor. If they decide to stop production of the software you're running or go out of business entirely, you'll be left with an obsolete system and no avenues of support.

Intranet Shopping Tips

Off-the-rack software varies from vendor to vendor, each with their own definition of what they believe their target audience will want. You, as a shopper, must filter through all the marketing and find a solution that will work for your organization and user-base. But before you go shopping, you need to follow some simple guidelines:

Closing Thoughts

If you're looking for a long-term software solution, you'd better make sure that whatever you decide on is going to last. It's going to be a hassle—for intranet stakeholders and users—to have to change software tools every year. It's better to take that extra bit of time to shop around, find something that fits properly, and tailoring it to the specific needs of your organization rather than adopting a "one's just as good as another" attitude. The last thing you want is to find yourself at a haute couture show in a zoot suit.

Copyright © 2006 Paul Chin. All rights reserved.
Reproduction of this article in whole or part in any form without prior written permission of Paul Chin is prohibited.