Surviving the Software Selection Process

Tuesday Apr 6th 2004 by Eric Spiegel
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Stressed out about choosing a multi-million-dollar software package for your enterprise? You're not alone. Our Datamation columnist tells you how to make the best choice for your business.

Decisions, decisions!

Cruising down the cereal isle at the local grocery store, I am overwhelmed by the numerous eye-catching boxes. Although the frosted covered sugar flakes look quite tasty, I can envision my family doctor shaking her head in disgust at my upcoming annual physical. Maybe I should consider a generic brand of corn flakes, minus the tasty sugar and flashy packaging. But even though I would pay more for the top-selling brand of corn flakes, I would feel more confident in the quality.

Too many choices leads to cereal isle stress! And if that gets to me, you can only imagine the pressure a CIO feels when tasked to select a multi-million-dollar enterprise software package.

CIOs need a proven, steadfast process for sifting through the hundreds of choices available for each enterprise software market segment. Whether you are evaluating CRM or RFID solutions, the same basic selection process applies. There are a series of steps for ensuring a result that will survive the intense, long-term scrutiny this level of investment will certainly attract.

Where do you begin?

PN Narayanan, senior project management team leader with the Delaware Department of Technology and Information, is a key member of the ERP Financials selection team. He says there is an imperative precursor to starting the selection process.

''It is important to reengineer the business process prior to making a selection,'' he explains. Narayanan found in his experience that instead of customizing software to fit the process, there is a greater benefit in reengineering the legacy process.

Once the business process is reworked and solidified, make sure you have committed executive sponsors who have no false expectations of a quick selection. We are talking months, not weeks.

Then put together a team of subject matter experts (SMEs), technical experts and a project manager. If your resources are limited or you lack the expertise internally, consider hiring a consulting firm that specializes in selecting this type of software.

What is Driving the Change?

Find out what is driving the need for this new software. Does the legacy system to be replaced have performance issues? Are there business requirements that are too costly to implement in the current system? Ask your target user audience and IT staff to rank the importance of relevant requirements.

Narayanan knows all to well the importance of obtaining user insights.

''Our business users' experience with a prior implementation showed them the importance of minimizing the customization work to reduce the rollout complexity,'' says Narayanan. ''In response, we developed a 'customization' weighted criteria that was applied to each functional requirement. We then could compare the average level of customization of each product.''

Rick Morani, president of HMG Technologies, Inc. in Columbia, Md., says you have to strike the right balance when coming up with selection criteria.

''Avoid a great technology solution that doesn't meet the needs of the business, or a feature-rich solution that isn't technically up to snuff,'' says Morani.

Your team can create a comprehensive weighted criteria formula to help weed out the ISV's that won't fit your needs. Criteria should strike a balance between the panache that accompanies a leading-edge start-up, versus the tried-and-true brand names, such as SAP or PeopleSoft.

Just as my family doctor wouldn't like the sugar-coated cereal selection, your CEO won't be happy with software that is all frosting.

To whittle down your list of hundreds to a manageable list of three or four vendors, Morani stresses the need to follow the traditional means of separating the potential winners from the pack.

''Absolutely be sure that your process involves a Request for Information (RFI) phase to sift through the noise and get to a top five that would be involved in the more detailed Request for Proposal (RFP) phase,'' says Morani.

Just bear in mind that you have a limited amount of time to review each response, so don't over do it. Make the final selections for the presentation stage based on your weighted criteria.

If you are short on time, another option is to purchase industry research from an analyst firm like Gartner, Inc. and limit your RFP selections to those ISV's that best fit your requirements.

Continue on to the next page to find out how to weed through the vendors...

Weeding Through the Vendors

Schedule times for each ISV finalist to deliver their standard demo. This may require a series of demonstrations depending on how many modules are being considered. Prepare a list of questions that will help you identify technical and business concerns. Try not to get too far off track during these demos because you want to see all the basic, out-of-the-box functionality in the allotted time.

There will be time for drilling down into your concerns after seeing all the presentations.

Now that your team has reviewed each finalist's proposal and has seen the product in action, request a custom demo. This is where you can rake the vendor over the coals. Well, let's keep it professional. But in all seriousness, this is your team's chance to explore the nooks and crannies of the product.

Give each vendor the same amount of time to build the customizations, but have someone from your team shadow them as they make the changes. Make sure there are no smoke and mirrors in play, and gauge how much configuration versus actual programming is necessary to meet your requirements.

In addition, set technical benchmarks that the vendor must prove, such as numbers of transactions per minute in the case of high-volume processing.

Now comes the hard part.

Compile the ratings of each product, by feature, and come to an empirical final ranking.

Then you must compare each vendor's qualifications, which should be well vetted by this point. How stable are they financially? Is there an impending acquisition, like Oracle's recent bid to take over PeopleSoft? Were the references provided impeccable?

Set up meetings with each vendor to provide them a chance to respond to all your concerns.

As your journey comes to an end with the selection of a vendor, be careful not to overlook the items that hang on the periphery of these projects.

''Don't forget that your package system is usually just a part of your total picture,'' says Morani. ''You still have to think about system interfaces, addressing changing requirements and reporting requirements.'' This includes potential legacy data conversion and new hardware requirements.

But in reality, your journey is just beginning. You have a long implementation road ahead. So take a well deserved break and reward yourself with a nice big bowl of frosted covered sugar flakes. Enjoy!

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