2014-22-September-Multiple-Choice.jpgDeb Lavoy recently argues that IT’s approach to providing enterprise software solutions is not effective. IT often buys complex enterprise software platforms and then starts a “science project”:

"Most enterprise software is more like undertaking a science project than buying a product that solves a problem. Organizations buy a 'platform' and have their IT departments build the 'solution' on it."

Lavoy maintains that this IT approach to acquiring and deploying enterprise software is slow, costly and often ends in project failure. I completely agree. Then how should you select your software products and implementers? Here’s a methodology that I’ve found to be very effective.

The goal of the solution selection process is not to end up with a chosen “tool,” but no idea about what to do next. The goal is to get the best solution -- and also to use the process as the preseason, so you’ll be as effective as possible when the contract is signed and your implementation clock starts running.

This is a different approach than many take -- whether buyers or suppliers -- but it’s worth the extra preparation and attention to detail.

1. Develop a 'medium' list of candidates

Many areas of information management -- such as the ECM market -- have been consolidating for years, so your medium list for products might be lean. It might narrow down to IBM, EMC, OpenText and Hyland, or Microsoft SharePoint, Alfresco, Box and a few others, or you might just be consolidating the products you have implemented in your organization.

Several ECM-related technology categories have not consolidated because they are relatively new or contain specialized subcategories -- social content, e-discovery and information rights management, for instance. In these cases, you could be looking at many candidates.

Even if your set of candidate products is small, you could also be selecting a system integrator (SI) to implement those products, which increases the potential choice of solution providers to hundreds. Note that there’s far more variability in the SI space than in, for example, the ECM software space, and the adequacy of each solution depends heavily on the specifics of each proposed team and solution (rather than on the general characteristics of the software, which are relatively invariant). Cast your net wide when evaluating SIs in addition to software products. It will be easy to filter out the most appropriate candidates for the next, in-depth level of evaluation – but only after seeing each vendor’s reply in a later step.

To develop the initial list, use a set of criteria like the following. Candidate vendors should meet at least most of the criteria:

  • For SIs, relevant product expertise and proven footprint
  • Some focus on your vertical industry, with reference-able customers
  • National and global presence (if relevant to your organization), with readily available resources to all your organization sites
  • Sufficient vendor stability
  • Adequate depth on the bench (resources that are adequate, available, competent and relevant to your implementation)
  • Previous work for your organization (or been suggested by your organization), including quality and success of current or previous work

Your list may end up having only a few candidates (if you are just selecting ECM product suites), but as many as six to 12 candidates if you are selecting a solution in one of the unconsolidated technologies categories or if you are selecting an SI as well.

At this point (i.e. when you're compiling your medium list), don’t engage with the candidates in any serious manner. Have a plan and methodology when you begin to engage with them -- as outlined in the succeeding steps of the vendor selection process (below).

2. Validate and prune medium candidate list

Quickly review and validate the candidate list, making corrections to the criteria and scores as necessary.

Focus on the relative ranking of the candidates and then prune any off the bottom that you don’t want to take to the next step.

Do some “what-if” analysis, but none that requires substantial effort or time -- or much additional information. Gathering additional information will require engaging in some way with the candidates, and, again, that should be done according to a plan and methodology.

3. Assign a designated team, including a point person for vendor contacts, to the selection process

Regard the vendor selection process as if it were your first “project” with this vendor. Your high expectations for project execution should be in play -- e.g., whether the supplier follows directions, whether it’s resourceful and creative, hits deadlines and budgets, and provides a solution rather than a bag of unassembled parts.

But keep in mind that it’s also their first project with you, and so you want to come across as organized, prepared and focused -- which helps ensure that the vendor gives you their best team because you are a client they believe can be successful.

4. Inform candidates

Have your point person contact each candidate on the pruned list, announcing you will be issuing a Request for Proposal (RFP), the next stage of the selection process. In this email, outline the steps of the process and general expectations, establish the appropriate contacts and channels of communication -- and ask whether the vendor wishes to participate in the process.

Each step of the process is designed to be proactive to get the most effective response possible from each candidate -- or to weed them out early in the process.

5. Write the RFP

This does not take long, though it addresses both current and future requirements.

Your organization should have these requirements already – that is, if you clarified your Current State, defined your Future State, and planned the Roadmap that will take you from the current to future state. If you haven’t done this work, then do so before beginning the solution selection process.

6. Write two to four application scenarios that exercise all of the important capabilities of the solution being selected

Base these scenarios on actual usage within your organization, typically two to four scenarios to address the breadth of the required capabilities of the solution being selected. Depending on timing, these scenarios can either be provided with the RFP to all the candidates (to provide further context about your organization’s needs and planned implementation) or they can be provided later, to only those candidates invited to conduct vendor presentations (Stage 8).

7. Issue, receive, evaluate RFPs

This stage of the evaluation culls the medium list (potentially as many as six to 12 candidates) down to a short list of three or four candidates. Three short-list vendors work fine for most situations. You should, if at all possible, avoid having just two.

8. Host vendor presentations

Invite the three or four finalists to your organization to provide onsite presentations and demonstrations of their proposed solutions. The onsite presentations allow the vendors to:

  • Present and clarify their proposed solutions
  • Demonstrate the capabilities of their proposed solutions in the context of your application scenarios (from Stage 6), ensuring the demonstrations are organized and help you compare the proverbial apples to apples

The vendor presentations also help you evaluate each candidate as a “solution provider," by evaluating whether the vendor completed its first “project” on time, on budget, with honesty and little complaining. This stage makes it clear whether a given candidate is willing and able to devote the appropriate resources to your organization’s initiative.

Following the presentations, you will typically need to ask the finalist vendors to tie up loose ends, which could range from simple clarifications to deal killers. In our experience, one of the usual loose ends is pricing, so if questions remain, ask your finalists to clarify their pricing one more time. The goal at this stage is to eliminate as much uncertainty as possible.

9. Select the winner

Select the winner and notify the losers. Final pricing negotiations and contracting take place at this point.

And there you have it: a staged process for solution and SI selection, one that gets you from a long list to medium list to short list to finalist, with criteria at each stage of the process so that everyone on your team understands how you got there.

Title image by Derek Bruff (Flickr) via a CC BY-NC 2.0 license