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ServiceNow customisation versus configuration: choosing the right path

ServiceNow: customisation versus configuration

Implementing ServiceNow raises the question: should you embrace the system ‘out of the box’ with light configuration or fully customise it with unique coding to suit your business processes?

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Box on a shelf

For more than a decade I’ve been working with businesses to implement ServiceNow. As I talk to clients, a common question is: ‘Should my business change its processes to suit ServiceNow’s functionality, with light configuration, or customise it completely to our unique processes?’

Before answering that question, let’s take a look at the meanings of configuration and customisation:

Configuration means using ServiceNow largely as it comes, known as ‘out of the box’ or baseline. Configuration involves some light tweaking of the existing functionalities to fit a business’s unique needs. This might be adding extra ‘drop down lists’, assigning roles and responsibilities to different groups, and allowing different access levels, for example. 

Customisation means changing the ServiceNow code base to create new functionality. It involves coding to a certain degree (i.e. business rules, script includes), and creating lookup tables, User Interface (UI) actions and client scripts.

A third area is customisation with upgrade implications, which means changing ServiceNow baseline objects such as business rules, script includes, and buttons etc. This means that the objects are now owned by the business, and won’t be auto-upgraded when performing release upgrades.

My experience across all three approaches has led to my unwavering implementation principle: businesses should stick as close to using ServiceNow ‘out of the box’ or baseline as possible.

I focus on helping organisations to realise successful implementation of ServiceNow through configuration. I believe customisation is an exception that we need to avoid – unless there is an ‘absolute’ business objective that can’t be solved any other way.

Why do organisations use ServiceNow?

ServiceNow is used by companies from the ASX50, right down to small teams across any industry. It enhances enterprise operations through interoperability across multiple applications on one platform.

ServiceNow has various workflow and service management applications – from HR to finance, legal, IT, business process mapping, etc. The integrated approach gives businesses a single system of action, with each application ‘talking’ to the other.

Interoperability and seamless connectivity is bolstered with ServiceNow’s robust automation. For example, if someone enters a new employee on-boarding request, the information can be auto-routed to payroll, facilities, security, IT, and so on, so everyone can take their necessary step. This automation reduces time, complexity and duplication, while boosting efficiency and streamlining the delivery of services by providing transparency across the enterprise.

Another benefit is ease of supplier connectivity. ServiceNow comes with many integrations which businesses and suppliers could be using, so it is easy to use an Application Program Interface (API) to connect to those systems. This reduces the need for emails and spreadsheets while driving efficiencies across the business and suppliers.

Challenges of customisation

A regular statement I hear is: ‘If we don’t customise ServiceNow, how can we set ourselves up for success?’

It’s easy to see why customisation is a ‘first instinct’, as organisations may think they can simply take their existing processes to the new system, and they won’t have to change the way they work. Or they might, for example, in change management, have some complex risk assessment requirements that would ‘just be easier to manage’ if they customised the risk assessment functionality provided ‘out of the box’.

However, there are three key reasons why I recommend organisations stay away from customisation:

1. Ongoing resources

Adding customised features requires specialised developers for ongoing maintenance. Every time an upgrade is released, experts will be required to match the changes to the customisations. Some implementers may, in fact, suggest customisation to keep their clients ‘sticky’. This means that the more customisations, the more downstream developers are needed by the client. KPMG focuses on deploying ServiceNow using ‘out of the box’ and configurations to ensure the business is able to see long-term benefits through ease of upgrades.

2. Slow, complex upgrades

ServiceNow releases two platform upgrades a year. For configured settings and features, the upgrades usually take 4-5 days to implement. This speed means an organisation can realise benefits quickly.

In contrast, upgrades to a fully customised system take months. Sometimes, the upgrades can ‘break’ the customisations, which puts a business in a disadvantaged situation. Some organisations are not able to upgrade at all due to heavily customised ServiceNow platforms. They are faced with the complex business decision of missing out on new features and sticking to a customised platform, or starting over with a new ServiceNow implementation. However, delaying/avoiding upgrades is a disadvantage if competitors have the most advanced functionalities. It is also a security risk, as upgrades usually address emerging security issues. The other problem is, if it takes months to upgrade, it will already be time for yet another new upgrade when it is finished.

3. Legacy processes

A common reason people want to customise is to retain existing legacy processes. However configuration offers a chance to look at current business processes and find more efficient ways of operating.

When organisations say they want to customise, we firstly look at the business requirement, then explore ServiceNow to see if there is an existing functionality that we can use or configure. If customisation can’t be avoided, we document the coding, so that when the organisation goes to upgrade, they know exactly what was customised.

Configuration benefits

It may seem counterintuitive at first, but working as closely as possible to ‘out of the box’ enables organisations to seize the benefits of interoperability and automation, as well as the latest upgrades, less need for specialised resources, and the opportunity to implement process improvements that save time and cost.

We have seen how well configuration works. One large organisation that opted for configuration was able to harness the time saved from better processes to expand their configuration into new, beneficial areas that they weren’t currently using – like additional financial capabilities and deeper security functionality.

In summary

An experienced ServiceNow implementation partner like KPMG can be beneficial in helping organisations to understand the risks of replicating existing functionality through customisation, and how it can reduce the ability to capitalise on industry best practices. KPMG will respectfully challenge an organisation’s ‘first instinct’ to customise, and present alternate options which utilise ‘out of the box’ functionality.

Innovation comes in many forms, and businesses don’t need to customise ServiceNow to prove their digital capabilities. Better value can come from reviewing internal processes and following ‘out of the box’ processes with configuration.

My answer when clients ask how they can be set up for success without customising is, ‘You already are by using ServiceNow core functionality’.

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