This blog usually covers topics dealing with building enterprise software systems. I’m going to diverge a bit this time and discuss how to select commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) software. Companies spend millions on COTS software and much of it is wasted. (I’ll post part 2 of this blog entry in a few days.)
Buying an enterprise-scale software package is an expensive proposition. The definition of enterprise scale for this post is any software package that requires a shared server computer and supports multiple users. The real cost of purchasing such a package includes the purchase price, maintenance fees, server cost, user training, support staff training and possible network infrastructure upgrades.
Selecting the wrong software presents more than cost issues, however. Employee morale and productivity can be severely impacted resulting in poor customer service, high error rates, and lost business. Don’t let this happen to you! Follow the steps outlined below and you’ll make the right choice.
1. Conduct a requirements and issues assessment
You can’t select complex business software when your organization is unclear about its objectives, priorities and constraints. A formal and lengthy analysis isn’t needed. Using a few structured joint requirements planning sessions with representatives from those groups most impacted by the software is usually sufficient.
Do this BEFORE you invite vendors to present their solutions. Take a hard look at the business processes that will leverage the software. Zero in on the activities you want to automate. Prioritize the capabilities you need using a simple three-level system.
- Essential – Failure to implement the capability means the system will not meet your needs.
- Important – Lacking the capability may affect customer or user satisfaction.
- Useful – No significant satisfaction or revenue impact is expected if the capability is missing.
2. Seek out objective advice
Many advisors earn commissions or advertising revenue from software vendors thus compromising their objectivity. Clearly, none of us are completely unbiased though anyone who makes money by swaying your decision simply cannot provide trustworthy guidance. Ask a potential advisor which companies and software packages he or she has recommended in the past, how often and why. Knowing a person’s bias can help you put their recommendations in context and challenge their ideas appropriately.
3. Gather all the relevant information
Meet with the sales people. They may work directly for the software company or for a reseller. Either is fine but for a major expenditure, you’re justified in asking to speak directly with experts at the software firm to get first hand answers to complex questions. Sales people are interested in account control and they should be. But you have a right to speak directly with knowledgeable individuals who can answer questions that the sales person cannot.
If the software package is built using critical components from another software company, you are entitled to speak with the third party company as well. Problems at either firm could jeopardize your purchase. When checking references, ask for names of firms like your own and speak with people whose jobs depend on the software. A refusal to support this kind of dialogue should be viewed with great skepticism.
4. Consider more than just features and functions
Features and functions are quantitative. Sellers like to produce long lists of all the things the software can do. Any software package will do some things well and other things poorly. The qualitative aspects of package selection are equally important. Focus on the capabilities you need. Ignore all the bells and whistles you’ll rarely use.
Take a look at the frequency of patches, maintenance updates, and major releases. Compare these statistics among the sellers. You’ll usually find a pattern as they strive to maintain parity with one another. If you find a seller issuing far more or less updates than the others, you should ask why. Too many updates may indicate problems that are being frantically addressed. Too few updates might suggest lack of new investment in the software.
5. Understand the technology foundation
The software package should be founded on widely used technologies and should supply published interfaces for interacting with other software. Meeting these criteria will make it easier for you to find people well versed in the software and able to help should problems arise. It will also be much simpler to integrate the new software with other systems in your firm.
Beware of proprietary technologies. Proprietary is okay when the vendor can offer something truly unique and innovative. This is rare and you should avoid it unless you have an unusual need. Also be on the lookout for outdated technologies. If a product has been available for a long time and hasn’t undergone a major overhaul, be suspicious. It may be on its way out. You don’t need to be on the leading edge but you need technology with staying power.
Part 2 of this post is available here.