By James K. Watson, Jr., and Linda Andrews, Doculabs
It's a buyer's market, right? Technology spending has been down, and the vendors are hungry. As organizations begin to loosen the purse-strings once again, some advice is in order on how to deal with vendors when buying technology. Knowing that these guys have a sales methodology, wouldn't you rather enter the decision-making process with a buying methodology on your side?
Too many of our customers start down the path without a clear strategy or methodology in mind. We advocate following a systematic process to improve the chances that the product you select meets your organization's needsboth short- and long-term.
Doing Your Homework
Step Zero is: Don't start by talking to vendors. Now is not the time to go golfing with the vendors' sales reps. All they'll give you is hype and sales pitches that will only confuse you further. Instead, we recommend you do some work up front.
1. Start with strategies. What's your IT strategy? Does it align with the company vision and overall business strategy? Any technology you purchase needs to fit into your company's priorities and long-term objectiveslobjectives that may include reducing costs, improving efficiency, and making it easier for internal and external customers to do business with your company.
Defining your technology strategyand ensuring that it aligns with your business objectivesis an essential first step in the decision process. Not only does it help you identify what you want to achieve (and the steps to help you get there), it also helps you to obtain the critical buy-in from senior management.
2. Do some legwork. Ideally, this includes a needs assessment and requirements definition. Just what are the business problems that the technology will address? What functionality will you require to solve those problems? And what technical specifications must the new technology meet? Make sure to involve representatives from throughout the potential user base in these steps of the processe.g., field agents, brokers, and potentially external partners such as surety companies, reinsurers, and risk managers.
This collaborative approach takes time and effortwhich is why you may want to use the services of an independent consultant at this stage of the process. They can save you time and provide an outsider's perspectiveand also shine some objectivity on the process. Whatever approach you choose, taking the time to assess your needs and define your requirements lays the foundation for a successful IT project. First, it gives you the ammunition to help you make the case for the technology. Second, it also helps you achieve user buy-in. Most important, though, the end resulta defined list of business, functional, and technical requirementsalso gives you more control when it's time to evaluate specific products.
3. Use your requirements definition to develop a realistic set of criteria for evaluating all potential vendors. Speaking of control, having well-defined criteria will help you remain focused and in control as you evaluate products, in the face of vendors who may want to sell you on a wider range of features and functionality (all the bells and whistles, even if you don't need them). Having a single set of criteria also ensures a level playing field for all the vendors you evaluate.
4. Understand your integration needs; the product you select should not become a point solution. The silver lining of Y2K was that it forced organizations to take a comprehensive inventory of all their systemsand a lot of people were surprised at all the point solutions and underutilized systems they found. It makes little sense to put in a stand-alone solution that will ease the business processes for only one or two departmentsand which will be a struggle to integrate with existing or future systems. Even more important, today the front-office systems need to communicate with the back-office systemsand, increasingly, your systems need to communicate with those of your business partners. Keep the bigger picture in mind (see Step 1, "Strategy") as you evaluate products and the integration issues that each presents.
5. Understand your implementation requirements. For every product you evaluate, consider the resources that will be required to develop applications, integrate with other applications, put the production system in place, and maintain and support it. Do you have the expertise and manpower to handle it? Do you have the budget to add staff or bring in outside help? Is the product sophisticated and flexible enough to be customized and integrated the way you want? Does this flexibility make the system too complex for administrators?
Also think about your users. Is the new system easy to learn? Will it change the way users work? If users aren't comfortable with the system, it will go underutilized.