3 Reasons to be Savvy on Software as a Service Solutions in International Development

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We’ve all been there. You’re working with an organization or government to help chart a path towards stronger data management practices. Key staff are excited about the potential of new tools to help them get organized and realize a future of beautiful data visualizations and dashboards.
Then one of three questions comes up and stops the conversation in its tracks:

  • Who will own the system? The data?
  • How can we get changes or enhancements?
  • What is the cost now? What about future costs?

These are great questions to ask as you consider an investment in enterprise software, especially since so many teams have failed to build their own M&E system in the past.
Software as a Service is a different way of creating and delivering M&E software. I think SaaS is better than the old model of building from scratch, or heavily customizing existing code.
What makes SaaS different?
Three things set the SaaS model apart from self-hosted software solutions: how it’s built, how it’s paid for, and how it’s accessed.
How is SaaS built?
Software as a service providers use different tools and management models for making their product. At the end of the day, though, SaaS products have three things in common:

  • They’re continuously developed (not upgraded sporadically). A new version of Microsoft Word or Outlook comes out every two or three years, and needs to be installed by hand. In contrast, Google Docs or Gmail users are always using the very latest version of the software; bug fixes and incremental improvements to the codebase are released on a daily basis.
  • They’re hosted (not installed). SaaS runs on infrastructure that the vendor maintains. The customer doesn’t need server rooms, software developments, or system administrators, and the end user has nothing installed on their computer.
  • They’re designed to be configured (not customized). SaaS products typically have a single codebase that is used by all customers. The differences from one customer to the next are captured by configuring the software’s parameters, fields, and workflows – not by altering the source code that can lead to bugs and failures.

How is SaaS purchased?
SaaS products are typically offered on a monthly or annual subscription basis. Customers pay a fee in exchange for access to the software.
The subscription fee, which grants access to users on some defined basis (i.e. per user, project, or organization) goes to pay for infrastructure and for support. It also pays for the initial cost of developing the software, along with the continuing costs of developing and improving it.
SaaS providers may also charge an initial setup and configuration fee to cover the labor cost of getting the customer up and running with the software.
How is SaaS delivered?
Software as a service is almost always accessed via a web browser. Since your data is stored in the cloud, concurrent users are working with the same information, which means that your organization has a single source of truth for mission-critical data.
The Benefits of SaaS
The broadly-accepted benefits of SaaS are well-documented, but we tend to focus on three particular benefits:
Better software
The SaaS model produces higher quality software that gets better with time and scale. The power of SaaS is rooted in the symbiotic relationship between users and product teams. A successful SaaS product creates a virtuous cycle: The whole user base drives customer-driven product development, which makes the product better. A better product attracts more customers and more revenue, which enables the product team to grow and invest in an even better product.
The beauty of this is that all customers receive the improvements generated from the feedback loop. Customer A provides the inspiration for improving the app in a meaningful way, and customer B benefits from those enhancements. Customers benefit from the perspective and best practices of “the crowd,” resulting in better software, as well as general best practices for implementing M&E systems.
This phenomenon is especially relevant in a relatively new domain like M&E software: Different organizations are evolving at different speeds, but they’re ultimately all striving to achieve similar capabilities.
This entire model is reinforced by a pay-as-you-go fee structure that incentivizes providers to stay focused on market needs and deliver great service. Because SaaS companies need to keep earning the renewal fees of our customers, we need to constantly delight users and do better than the alternatives.
Less financial risk
Off-the-shelf software and standardized support services allow you to get up and running quickly, speeding up the process of learning, iterating and decision-making. You can quickly see if the tool works and cut the cord if you need to. In other words, there are lower barriers to entry, as well as lower barriers to exit.
Contractually, because SaaS providers are responsible for hosting and complying with a Service Level Agreement (SLA), they’re actually obligated and financially incentivized to deliver quality performance, feature development, and upgrades. The pay-as-you-go structure also means you aren’t legally locked in to any long-term engagements, which also provides flexibility and reduces financial risk.
Freedom to do what you do best
Outsourcing all of these incredibly complex risks – engineering teams, technology infrastructure, security, etc. – means you get to focus on your core competency, which is not creating and hosting software.
This freedom is especially relevant to global development organizations, who are universally under-resourced on their data management teams yet have the critical function of supporting day to day data operations, monitoring and evaluation (M&E), and organizational learning.
Our SaaS Experience
I joined DevResults in 2013 because I wholeheartedly bought into Herb Caudill’s vision for creating software that helped development organizations. After years of deliberation, our team figured out that custom web development was profitable in the short-term, but ultimately not the best model for building the quality, sustainable product or company we envisioned.
We are now more aligned with our users and making the best tech we’re capable of. By focusing on one product and adopting the SaaS model, we’ve given ourselves a chance to go really deep into solving this one problem and we’ve defined a vision for supporting all global development organizations in the (hopefully) not so distant future.
I fully believe that software as a service solutions deliver a better product, with less risk, and more opportunity for you to focus on the work that really matters to you.
By Josh Mandell of DevResults
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