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customize gears

The configurable vs. customizable battle isn’t quite as dramatic or entertaining as that of Batman vs. Superman, but it’s a pretty big battle in the HR technology world.

I can’t even tell you how many vendor demos I’ve sat in on and heard the salesperson throw out the descriptors “configurable” and “customizable,” even using the two words interchangeably. Although according to your thesaurus, they are synonyms, this is not the case when we describe HR technology systems or most software systems for that matter. The words are definitely descriptors for HR technology functionality, but they don’t convey the same offerings. Keep reading to find out we perceive the difference between the two to be, so the next time you hear a vendor drop either of the terms, you’ll have the knowledge to question what he or she actually means. Knowledge is power, and, in this case, it might be your vendor’s kryptonite.


When vendors describe their systems as configurable, they mean the system is essentially complete and only needs a few fine tunes to fit a client’s specific needs. Generally the fine tunes are specific tweaks in the system allowing some personalization to specific behaviors or features – a vendor provided menu of areas that can be configured, so to speak.

For example, when buying a new car, you are given the option to select the color of the car, whether or not you want a sunroof, OnStar, built-in navigation or leather interior. The car is essentially the same- same body, tires, engine, etc., but you have the ability to make a few tweaks to personalize it to your tastes or needs.

With HR technology, configuration allows you to configure a few features to your specific needs and gives you the ability to add industry specific features. For example, you can change the color palate and fonts of your benefits website and add your company logo. Configuring a new hire process or termination workflow would be a few additional examples.

In the HR technology industry, vendors have spotted areas where clients commonly desire to customize features and have made those features more flexible to change without having to go in and recode. Configuration tends to save time and money because less backend coding and implementation is required, which is why it is a more favored approach for SaaS vendors. With more HR technology vendors moving to the SaaS model, all updates for all clients are being done at the same time, which makes it easier on the vendor and the clients to use configuration.

One drawback to HR technology configuration is that it may require depth and detail in the initial deployment, which might require specialized, highly trained people to know “which switches to switch.” Most vendors have trained implementation teams to “switch the switches,” so employer resources aren’t required to have the training and knowledge to do so. 


When a system is described as customizable, the vendor is saying that the system isn’t fully complete and will require further development to meet the client’s needs. The system will require custom coding and implementation, but you are able to change more items than the configurable “menu of options.”

Sticking with our automotive analogy, if you were customizing a car, you would buy the body of a car, but add an engine you built yourself, swap out your standard tires with some performance tires and have red flames painted on the sides to create a customized car. The tweaks you are making are a little more labor intensive and aren’t standard options to change.

In HR technology, customization provides employers a way to differentiate their systems but also requires more time and backend coding to achieve the desired customizations. Because customization requires vendors to write coding, thus making implementation work and time greater, customization tends to be more expensive than configuration. The custom coding allows users to change bigger things like the layout of the system, the performance management review form, the way data from third party systems are received and displayed and more. Until fairly recently, HR technology systems have been premise-based (you purchase the system and house it internally versus Saas or cloud-based solutions). Because each individual client owns its own instance of the system, customization among premise-based solutions was really popular.

Some drawbacks to customization include how expensive it can be to achieve and maintain a customized system. Customization may also require additional IT resources to maintain the system, and upgrades can be more challenging. You risk your customized changes and custom coding not working properly after implementation or upgrades; extra validation steps are required with customized systems to ensure that they will work properly. There are ways vendors can offer customizations that won’t be impacted by system updates, but it is a question that will need to be asked of the vendor.

The HR technology vendors we work with tend to prefer configurable systems. However, despite having some configurable features, some employers still might need some customization in a specific area.

The difference between configurable and customizable really comes down to providing more options to design specific applications or functionalities for specific needs vs. coding and developing to a client’s specific needs. Knowing the difference between the two is really more than being able to call your vendors out on whether they know the difference between the two; it’s important to understand the difference so that when a vendor does promote one or the other, you know exactly what you are getting, how much tweaking you can do and how much it will cost to make system tweaks to meet your needs.