Implementing new applications, especially such major applications as enterprise resource planning (ERP) applications or financials, is a huge undertaking. Most businesses face two main choices when evaluating how to implement new applications. First, they must choose between building and buying. Building lets you tailor the new application to the way your business works. However, building a major application requires significant investment in programming and design as well as intimate knowledge of your business processes. These factors plus the development time, which can be many months, push most businesses toward buying applications. Packaged applications let you skip the lengthy development process. But because commercial applications are by nature one-size-fits-all solutions, they almost never fit the way your company does business.

If you decide on a packaged application, you have another choice to make: Should you modify the application to better fit your business or modify your business to fit the application? Modifying the application lets you mold the application to better fit tried-and-true business practices already in place. If the application matches up fairly well with your business, you might think that the modifications shouldn't be too extensive or time-consuming. However, this path can be deceptively expensive: The application, like all software, will have new releases, and if you opt to stay current, you'll have to retrofit your modifications to each successive release.

Each side has its proponents, and Oracle has come out on the side of reinventing your business to match the application. Besides its Oracle9i database product, Oracle sells a year-old application called Oracle E-Business Suite 11i. Oracle's outspoken CEO, Larry Ellison, is targeting the complexity of customizing applications, urging customers to stop modifying their applications and to use the suite as-is—even if it doesn't work exactly the way the customers want. Oracle's position is that the software performs the task it was designed for and that changing the software introduces unneeded complexity and problems for the customer. However, this stance might also be due to the buggy nature of the suite, for which Oracle has reportedly released more than 5000 patches during the past year.

Although the idea of changing your business rather than changing your software has merit in some instances, especially if the software is based on best practices that will improve your business processes, this approach has another danger. When implemented correctly, application software can give you a competitive advantage that contributes to your business's bottom line. But what advantage do you have if all your competitors run the same software that you do?

In today's rapidly changing business environment, software must be able to quickly adapt to business circumstances. Not being able to change the software yourself puts you at the mercy of the application vendor. A one-size-fits-all approach to application implementation certainly requires less expense up front, but it comes with its own—and possibly much higher—cost in the long run.