The task of selecting the most appropriate software for the business is now decades old. Yet, as a supplier, we still see a very wide range of approaches to this very important investment decision.
I am keen to see potential customers doing a really good job of selecting software – especially if we are in the running. You might say that this is not altruistic; we obviously think we would win if the selection process is rigorous and challenging and not the usual ‘come in and do a demo’ type of invitation.
But what do we mean by ‘rigorous and challenging’? Well for a start, look at the rigour of the analysis you have carried out to nail down the business problem, issue or process that you are trying to address. Therein lies the first clue to ‘rigour’; if your analysis is good then you will have done a lot to improve your chances of selecting the right system for your business.
Have you actually carried out an analysis of the issue you are trying to address? For example, do you know:
- Is the issue a problem, such as you want to evaluate the feasibility of a housing development with greater accuracy (i.e. with more and better data)?
- Is the issue a ‘process’, such as when your housing developments are nearing completion, are other departments (outside the development team) recording information that is inaccurate, duplicated or too late for efficient action?
- Are speed and time the issues? That is to say, you are happy with the way things work in terms of accuracy and human resources engaged in the process, but you need it to all go through quicker to the eventual sale/rent and management of the properties developed.
If your analysis is good, I would expect to see a clear statement or written description of the issue being addressed. This should be linked to the next stage of the process: are you treating the selection as the first stage of an investment decision?
Buying and implementing a new software package may be a material expenditure for the business but it is certainly an ‘investment decision’ and like any other investment decision, it has certain characteristics.
- Do you have standards for this decision?
- Do you have benchmarks for this decision?
- Do you have a way of identifying the return on this decision? (i.e. solving the issue that you have addressed in your earlier rigorous analysis)
How challenging will you be when comparing software packages? I won’t dwell on the usual things you should list in your selection checklist (e.g. how many customers does the supplier have?) and instead I will jump directly to the more subtle challenges that selection teams seem to ignore, but where I believe you could really find out what your potential supplier is made of. Let me give you a few pointers to illustrate what I mean:
- Is the supplier‘s solution focused on business processes or simply on databases? It is always a good idea to periodically review your business processes. A great opportunity for such a review is when selecting a new software package. /however, there is a limit to the extent to which you should re-write your processes to match the needs of a supplier’s software package.
- Ask the supplier whether it is prepared to (or able to) adjust its package to fit with your requirements.
- Is the supplier prepared to engage with you on reviewing your business processes?
- How much adjustment can be carried out using built-in settings, and how much will need potentially expensive software modifications? Most importantly, ask to speak to some of the supplier’s existing customers to see whether its promises of bespoke software additions really happen and at what cost.
- If your processes suit a workflow-modelling solution, does the package use workflow and if so, can the workflow be modified by you or does it require input from the supplier?
- Was the supplier‘s solution specifically designed from the start to improve communication, coordination and information flow across all the relevant departments of the business?
I strongly believe that it is one of the roles of an IT/IS department to break down barriers between the different departments within a company, and therefore to be focused on providing software solutions that create effective communication; improve coordination and speed data flow.
How many times do you see different versions of a spreadsheet purporting to be the same, but containing conflicting data, different data categorisations, different time ranges and so on. Spreadsheets were a great invention but they are not and never will be software solutions. Spreadsheets have their place, but software solutions will ensure that there is only one version of the truth and that it is accessible by all relevant and authorised staff.
We all need to capture and process huge amounts of information, so it is very frustrating, inefficient and error-prone to ask staff to enter the same piece of data more than once. In my view, this should be an important goal of any IT/IS department. So when looking at a new package, consider:
- Is the supplier willing to work with you to look at how its products will fit in with your existing systems?
- Does the package communicate effectively within its own modules as well as with third-party systems?
- Is the supplier prepared to spend time mapping data flows with your staff in order to optimise coordination, accuracy and speed?
- Are there any areas even within the supplier’s software solution where data is entered more than once?
- Is the supplier willing to write new interfaces where these do not already exist? If the supplier is willing to write new interfaces, check how well these are implemented with some of the supplier’s existing customers.
BluTek does have the unusual perspective of ‘gamekeepers turned poachers’ since we can field two ex-CIOs as part of our sales activities, as well as other staff who have held senior IT posts. But I hope you can see that you can be imaginative, rigorous and challenging when you call a supplier and say, ‘would you like to come in and give us a demo?’
Pete Mylett is CEO of BluTek.