Selecting a computer system can be an intimidating process. In the business world today, every aspect of a company's business is affected by its business software. A misstep can be disastrous. A well-structured approach will assist an organization of any size in choosing the right software the first time.

The process is not complicated, but will take time and resources. Other projects may have to be tabled. Experience has proved that this project will require

your company to expend a great amount of energy, but there are numerous ancillary benefits from a project of this type.

You will gain better documentation of your business than ever before. You will develop a clear and current understanding of how all aspects of the business integrate with each other. You will find new ways to improve interfaces and integration with all of your business partners. You will discover new answers to old questions that may have gone unanswered for too long.

If you are unwilling or unable to complete this process yourself, get help. There are many advisors that are willing to become part of your team. The tradeoff is time (get it done faster with less learning curve) against cost (outside advisors can be expensive).

There is an old adage about completing a project that says there are three components: time, money, and quality. You can pick any two!

Getting Started

It is easy to ignore your computer system - until something goes wrong. For most, the computers just chug away in a back room, and we get information on our screens. It has become very much like turning on a light switch. We do not think about, or perhaps understand, what it takes to deliver electricity or cause a light bulb to glow; we just expect it and use it.

Maybe your company has stretched your computer investments beyond the limit because the memories of pain and suffering surrounding the purchase and implementation were so great that everyone thought the software would last forever. A business system is a decision about your future, and the future is not static. Business software decisions are an ongoing project, not a one-time event.

Step back and see where you are. Find out what your competitors are doing and learn what is available. Surprisingly, the answer may not always be to purchase a new system. In a process review, you can identify and eliminate nonessential activities from the work being done. After that you can create a "gap report." This report identifies where the current system is not supporting critical business processes. Once problems are identified, it is usually easy to develop a plan for closing the gaps. This is often significantly less expensive than implementing a completely new system.

Many of the gaps may be closed by using more of what is available in your current system. Maybe you just need a little more training. Or perhaps it may be necessary to upgrade to a newer, more advanced version of what you already have. The key is to understand your options so the best business decisions can be made.

Keys To Success

There are a few keys in setting up the project that will provide the greatest assurance of success. Most of the recommendations listed below are based on common sense, but some steps are left out so often that we have listed them here for planning purposes.

  • Set up teams that include all areas of the company. Make sure everyone is involved in the selection process. There is a saying often used: "He who makes the decision is stuck with it." Basically, if your executives are the only ones involved, they'd better be prepared to do all of the implementation work themselves. On the other hand, by creating a larger team effort, your employees will own the decision and help ensure its success.

  • Let the team set the target dates. If dates are unfairly imposed, it will start the project off on the wrong foot. The impression will be that you are not interested in the success of the project, but only in imposing or achieving deadlines that were set without their input. Communicate the goals and objectives while providing leadership, but avoid dictating to the group. Most of the time, the team members will do everything possible to meet the targets if they are realistic and they had input in the process.

  • Provide top management support to clear roadblocks. There will always be conflicts due to limited resources and different priorities in an organization. Hard decisions will have to be made in a timely manner. Where possible, eliminate obstacles as quickly as possible.

  • Top management must stay involved and committed. Attend meetings and express an interest in what is happening. You cannot be everywhere all of the time, but regular attempts to stay in the loop will pay great dividends. When it comes to the software demonstrations, plan to sit through the management overview section and the wrap-up, but let the team do most of the other work.

  • Manage expectations for everyone. Keep your staff informed and up-to-date. Tell your vendors and customers what you are doing and warn them when any stage of the evaluation may affect them.

  • Take advantage of the opportunity to build and improve on the relationships with all of your business partners. This is the perfect opportunity to be in contact with those you interact with and make them partners in your project. For example, both your sales force and purchasing departments can utilize the project to forge closer ties and gain better understanding of each other's needs. Making your key customers and suppliers aware of the project may strengthen their ties with your firm. Building on your relationships will pay dividends in the future.

  • When negotiating with the finalist, do not set up an adversarial relationship. This company will be very important to your project's success and will become a long-term partner with you. It is often better to use a third party to be the "bad guy" while negotiating the terms and conditions necessary to protect yourself. The software companies want to sell you their software and you want to find one that best suits your company. You should both be able to reach a fair conclusion to the process.

  • While cost is an important part of the decision, it should not be a deciding factor. Find the right solution (functions, features, capabilities) first. The objective is to find the best software for you, not the least expensive. If you don't believe this, ask the company that bought new software three times in five years.

    Implementation Phase

    When you move to the implementation phase, no matter what the excuse might be, do not shortchange education or training. Without sufficient knowledge of the software, it may be impossible to have a successful implementation. Second, there is no such thing as an easy conversion. This process will challenge your project team and your software partner. Make sure your people are given time to learn and practice; it will have the most positive effect on the outcome. Work together and the project will come together.

    Every trip begins by identifying two points on a map. The first is always where we are. The second is where we want to be. Without a starting point, it is impossible to plan a route. In defining where we are, the most important issue is documenting what is really happening in the organization.

    Many times, managers remember what used to occur in the past. A manager might be making decisions based on events that happened five or even 25 years ago.

    Make sure to take the time to validate the company's current procedures. Do not accept what is written in policy or procedure manuals. If you are lucky enough to have one, use it as a starting point, but make sure to check all instructions with the people who actually are assigned to do the work.

    The documentation of the company's processes can be divided into four sections.

    1. Technology - What equipment and applications do you have?

    2. Processes - How do you do the work, and what forms do you use?

    3. Interviews - How well do things work, what does not work, what needs to be improved, where are the gaps in the current procedures?

    4. Activity - How much is done and when?

    The end result is an accurate picture of how the business operates today. This becomes the foundation for determining what is needed going forward, what if anything can be done to improve operations in the short term, and what functions are no longer necessary for the enterprise.

    How To Get There

    The first step will be to screen the vendors. You are looking for a small group of viable alternatives from which you can select a software partner. While you may be tempted to select the first software package that meets your basic requirements, be patient. Try reviewing five to eight software packages to make sure you have a choice without confusing the issue.

    Reference checking is a task that can be easily spread throughout your operation. It gives many people the ability to see their impact on the process and to create ownership in the solution.

    Planning for and reviewing demonstrations can be a very re-warding experience if done right. If not, they are often a waste of time. Sometimes, they can lead you to poor decisions based on subjective rather than objective measures.

    Part of completing this process requires planning for the conversion and implementation. There is no better time to do this than while negotiations are ongoing. By integrating these tasks, your organization will be able to get the best deal consistent with giving the vendor a fair deal as well.

    At the end of this process you will know you have selected a viable software solution for your organization. You will have "buy in" from your management team and your staff, and the selected vendor will know you have done your homework and laid the groundwork for a successful implementation.

    Now it is time to make it work. Be prepared to be flexible. In software implementation projects, like nowhere else, there are always little surprises. If you expect surprises along the way, they will not seem like obstacles to the team, just part of the process to overcome. Be willing to work with your team (including the vendor) to fix anything that comes along.

    Do not shortchange training or "playtime" on your new system. It will take time for everything to sort itself out. Give yourself the time. This is too important to rush.

    Experience shows that during the actual implementation, there will be a great deal of anxiety. Everyone is fearful of change, no matter how prepared they are. Let people grumble. Listen to their concerns. Just do not panic.

    In a very short period of time, problems should become fewer and occur further apart. Soon, the complaints should die down. And, before you know it, everyone will begin to wonder how your company ever got along with the old system. As people become comfortable, the operations will run more smoothly, productivity gains will be realized, and the pain of conversion will be but a dim memory.

    This article is excerpted from the introduction to Software Selection by Steve Epner, published by the Brown Smith Wallace Consulting Group, St. Louis. For more information on the handbook, visit (Distribution Software Guide) or (Brown Smith Wallace).

    Publication date: 05/31/2004