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Ready to start a technology project: A best practices review can help you get centered

This article appears in the issue February 1998 [Volume 7, Issue 2]

OK, so after three years of whining, begging and pleading, someone somewhere in the echelons of management has heard your cry to apply some technology to effect your business strategy. Maybe you're drowning in a sea of paper and need help, or your response times to answer customer questions is measured in financial quarters as opposed to minutes. Either way you've gotten what you asked for--an opportunity to make a difference. So where do you start? How about trying a best practices review?

Solutions providers can be an excellent source of information about the industry, technology trends, case histories from an insider's perspective and innovative uses of their products. One way to tap this great source of information is the best practices review.

The review provides a forum through which solution providers can gain the attention of informed potential customers, and customers can learn innovative uses of technology that will lead to more robust functional requirements. Both solution providers and customers benefit by maximizing the value of their time.

Solution providers are the richest repository of an industry's best practices. They see, hear and know most of the problems, fears, obstacles, rewards and trends in the industry, and specifically in focused applications. Although the customer might need to filter biases, (remember, solution providers are paid to be proponents of THEIR solution), most software solution providers and integrators add considerable value, particularly in the early stages of a project. The chosen solution provider is rewarded for its contribution by a profit on the sale.

A typical best practices review consists of:

* a non-sales-oriented presentation by the solution provider that describes its background and experience in the customer's industry or problem area,

* case studies of solutions it has installed that match the profile (business functions, number of users, number of sites) of the customer's planned installation,

* a demonstration of a sample application focusing on functionality mapped to business value,

* an extended question-and-answer session.

To achieve the most from your best practices review, the first step is to make sure you have a project. Specifically, make sure you have identified the scope, objectives, macro business case and approximate budget for your project. Make sure the appropriate levels of management have signed off on the project and granted their permission to move forward.

The second step is to perform an initial solution provider screening. There are many solution providers in the marketplace, but only a handful might be suitable for your application. Screen the available solution providers to develop a short list of three or four who provide a reasonable match with your needs. Ensure that the solution provider: has local (or reasonably proximate) support staff, targets your industry as a vertical market, has subject matter experts in your industry, addresses the scale of system you are envisioning (enterprise vs. workgroup), can demonstrate it is effectively leveraging the same technologies that it is offering you, and has an offering that is compatible with your technical infrastructure.

Thirdly, send out the invitations at least three to four weeks in advance. The invitations should include a brief overview of the project--scope and objectives--and a description of the solution provider ground rules for the best practices review--no sales pitch and no competition bashing.

The invitations should request:

* appropriate case studies that parallel the application and industry,

* technically competent staff with experience in the specific type of application,

* provision for a possible demonstration of the system,

* a list of potential dates and times at which they can present, and a list of names and titles of the people who will attend the presentation.

You should list topics you want addressed and describe where you are in the project, including approximate time frames for issuing the RFP and making a final decision. Just like yours, the solution provider's time is valuable.

Finally, monitor the best practices review closely to ensure the solution providers stick to the rules. Set the expectation that you will stop the session if a solution provider deviates too far from the desired path or violates the ground rules. Don't hesitate to do that if it is obvious that the solution provider is crashing and burning. Tastefully stop the session and have a "chat." Our standard rule is that if the solution provider isn't prepared or doesn't know its product, it's probably demonstrative of the company's performance as a whole. Participating in a best practices session is a privilege, not a right.

Executed properly, a best practices review will provide you with up-to-date information about the state of the art in technology, which will allow you to recognize opportunities to leverage the technology to your benefit. Not having that knowledge may cause you to walk by great opportunities for revenues, improvements and cost reductions. The review will enhance your awareness of how other organizations are using the technology to address business problems similar to yours. It can also provide additional ideas for functional requirements to be included in your requirements specifications and your RFP.

A well run best practices review can save research time, scheduling time and can streamline the entire selection process. You'll be better educated to make the right decisions for your initiative from the beginning.

Ray Edwards is a principal and senior consultant with Lighthouse Consulting, LLC (Kansas City, MO), 913-381-4435, fax 913-381-4075, E-mail raedward@ sprynet.com. Ray is a charter member of The Camden Group


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