In a panel discussion at the 2012 International Association of Chiefs of Police conference, former San Jose Chief Rob Porter talked about a project:
Our department made the decision that we were going to customize a report writing software program, because the information coming up from the ranks was, “We want the report writing system just to basically let us do what we’re currently doing only in an automated fashion.” That effort to automate report-writing went on for years. It took a lot of effort but we got that thing back on track. I learned one thing from that process: Never, ever customize my software again!
The idea that a software application should let users do what they’re currently doing only in an automated fashion is fundamentally wrong and fantastically expensive. It’s an anachronism left over from the seventies, when corporate data processing departments cranked out COBOL code as fast as the finance department could come up with new variations of inventory reports.
In the same panel discussion, Keith Tribble, Executive Director of Enterprise Systems Development, U.S. Dept of Homeland Security asked, “Are you willing to go with an 80% solution and change your business processes to save ten, twenty, thirty percent a year?”
Henry Ford famously said, “If I asked customers what they wanted, they’d say faster horses.” This is not to say that customers’ desires aren’t important, but it was the standardization of the Model T that made modern transportation affordable.
The procurement process in public safety bolsters this especially deleterious wrong idea. RFPs contain thousands of requirements, the mindless composite of every user’s wish list, the equivalent of a faster horse with a lazy-boy saddle, zircon-encrusted stirrups, and a modem.
New tools benefit users who are willing to change the way they work to take advantage of them. Public safety users would do well to heed Chief Porter’s and Mr. Tribble’s advice. Find the best off-the-shelf solutions available and find ways to use them to their best advantage.
Agreed, it is not a good idea to customize software. That said, it is important to make the distinction between “customize” and “configure.” There are COTS solutions in the marketplace now that are “configurable,” i.e., allow agencies to make changes to meet individual agency needs without requiring software code changes. Configurable applications can significantly accelerate user acceptance, minimize the user training pain point, and improve the overall effectiveness of the data within. It takes more developer time to build a configurable COTS, but it delivers huge customer benefits and recognizes that there is more than one way to automate a business process.