As a CIO and frequent speaker on technology in the staffing industry, I am often asked whether staffing firms should build their own software or buy it. There’s much to consider and the answer is not always cut and dry.

The basics of each scenario seem simple enough: When building, you are developing the application from the ground up. You will need to build an internal software engineering capability to gather requirements, develop, test, deploy and support your new application.

When buying, you are purchasing the application from a software company, which will provide resources to configure the application, test it and roll it out. All past and future upgrades or development are handled by your partner.

The difference between build and buy is not always so clear, however: You could engage a software development firm to build the application for you and work with them to maintain the application, or you could buy an application that has many of the features you want and the capability to extend the application. In this scenario, you are buying core functionality and then building on additional features.

Pros and cons. There are key advantages and disadvantages of either option. For example, if you build, you are able to shape the solution to your unique needs, and you maintain ownership of intellectual property. It becomes a competitive differentiator. However, building your own is costly up front and requires ongoing, internal support and costs in other ways.

Buying an existing solution, on the other hand, enables you to get started sooner, as the product exists already. But you lose competitive differentiation that you may have had if you built your own. Also, you may not get all of your requirements met without customization.

You should consider building an application if you have access to application development talent and a unique digital strategy that will benefit from a custom solution.

You should consider buying if your staffing firm is focused on differentiating through sales, customer service, recruiting, brand recognition and pricing delivered by a great team. Today’s off-the-shelf applications will support that and are a great way to set a firm foundation.

The decision does not have to be applied across your entire technology portfolio. Financial systems that handle typical back-office functions are clear buy strategy solutions. Applications focused on the staffing lifecycle — screening, onboarding, applicant tracking — may be a good fit for building if you have the resources and strategy to make it worthwhile.

The decision isn’t a one-time thing, either. If you buy a solution, you typically commit to it for three to five years. If you build a solution, you will likely be continuously improving it over time and will want to get at least five years’ use out of the asset. As either of these cycles come to an end, you can evaluate your strategy and change course if it makes sense.

Often the decision to build or buy is a journey. A new firm focused on sales and operations could buy a solid solution that meets 80% of its needs and adapt its processes to the rest. As the firm matures, it can consider slowly moving into a build philosophy by investing in a platform solution that meets a portion of its need and then building on top of it to accomplish other strategic objectives.

Finally, as your digital strategy matures and becomes a key differentiator beyond just driving efficiency, you can take your past experiences building on a platform and start to build rich, high-quality custom applications.

This journey will take you from a staffing firm with a solid technology foundation to an innovative technology company that happens to do staffing. It is an exciting journey and one that will enable your firm to make a difference in the world, ultimately helping clients succeed and getting good people good jobs.