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I’m walking on thin ice with this blog. You see, software development consultancies can be easily misunderstood for charging a lot of money for a fairly intangible product. I’m not about to sit here and say you should pay it without question.

Expensiveness depends on your perspective of what ‘a lot of money’ is. A lot relative to what? How much your organisation spends annually on Christmas parties and corporate gifts? How much you already spend on all your other IT?

What about the value that software creates, and how much that could be worth to your business?

Soft-ware – geddit?

First let me tell you that whoever came up with the word ‘software’ was clearly a geek playing to the crowd:

“Huh-huh-huh, you know hardware, right?” “Huh-huh, yeah?” “Huh-huh-huh, well this program runs on hardware.”
“Cool.” “Kinda like, soft-ware. You got me?” “Wicked…” (*high fives)

(*In fact, the term software was first coined in 1953, so the high-fives are a bit of a historical inaccuracy. The rest definitely happened though. Definitely.)

My point is that software isn’t the sort of thing you can load onto a lorry pallet. Like soft skills and soft power, it’s…well… soft and almost intangible. Agile, dynamic, but no less impactful. This doesn’t stop it feeling a little strange (to some people) when a very tangible invoice is submitted.

It doesn’t help that the cost of software varies dramatically from the completely free to the downright extortionate. Or that this spectrum of price can often twist out of all alignment with the concept of value. That SAP implementation that just cost your business £450,000? Hmmm, maybe it was hard to justify that outlay against the business value it created. But how about that nifty little free download you use to organise your life from your smartphone? You might perceive it as absolutely priceless!

Sadly, not even bad developers come cheap

With bespoke software development, your money buys the hard work of people. It takes skilled developers, business analysts and project managers to make great software, together with a process of applying their potential so that every ounce of their creativity, resourcefulness and application is extracted. But not even the bad ones come cheap. You can imagine how much the good ones cost to keep fed with Star Wars paraphernalia, Mexican takeaways and trips to the petting farm.

But their ability to tappity-tap lines of code onto a screen is all for zero if that doesn’t translate into business value. Imagine Jose Mourinho signing the football keepy-uppy world champion for Manchester United and then expecting him to score 20 goals a season. The guy probably can’t pass further than 10 yards. Software is not about party tricks; it’s about doing something constructive; being part of a team striving to accomplish a specific goal. Something that can truly transform an organisation and give it the impetus that nothing else can.

How to invest your time for bigger software returns

The next time you feel like falling off your chair at the cost of good software, consider the difference it could make to your organisation. Stack it up against your next five years’ total projected revenue and expenditure. It should look a lot smaller. What would happen if it delivered a 5/10/20% improvement in your takings or outgoings or both? Does that look like a decent ROI?

Software investments go further and deliver benefits faster when you’ve invested time thinking it through before even approaching software development consultancies. Here are four things you can do now that won’t cost a penny.

  1. Work out what you want software for You don’t need to have the technical answers, just allow yourself to imagine the opportunities for delivering a digital transformation in your organisation. What ideas do you have? What are market-leading competitors doing? Think of ways of asking, “wouldn’t it be great if we could…”
  2. Write down short, medium and long-term objectives for your business You’re the expert on your organisation, and any self-respecting software development house you engage with will be keen as mustard to quiz you about where you’re taking it next. Objectives, KPIs, business plans – these are all things that don’t get properly documented, particularly in smaller or newer organisations. Invest the time now; it will pay off when you are commissioning software to deliver better business results.
  3. Map out your current business processes These are rarely documented, but can reveal inefficiencies that would otherwise be impossible to spot. Which parts are replicated or paper-based? What governs the performance of a process? Which aspects are already automated?
  4. Do some simple user research If your intended software is for customers to use, how much do you already know about their preferences and habits and how much are you assuming? Where is their pain? Similarly, for internal users, are you providing a platform for call handlers/order pickers/accounts clerks (or whoever) to give their input, or are you barging your opinion to the front of the queue? Users are key to achieving software payback; all development starts by understanding their perspective.

Yes, software has intangible physical properties but the business value it creates is very real. Treat it like everything else your organisation invests in by applying the same rationales and sniff-tests. Be prudent, but realistic. Plant wisely and look forward to reaping the harvest.