Part I: Finding the Right Fit
In today’s high-tech world, software can make or break your business. It affects your processes, your productivity, and your ability to provide quality products and services. In the first of two articles, I’ll give you guidelines on finding the right software for your business. Next quarter, I’ll start you on the path to creating a custom software solution, assuming you are unable to find a suitable commercial package.
Before beginning your search, conduct a needs analysis to define gaps and enhancement opportunities in your current environment. Define your budget up front. Identify and organize features & functionality that are: required; nice to have; lavish; and unimportant. Next, spend time searching the web, contacting vendors and evaluating demo software. You will need to compare each product you evaluate to your list of criteria and budget constraints. Be prepared to discover features you hadn’t considered or thought possible. Adjust your evaluation criteria accordingly.
Each time you discover a package that doesn’t fully meet your needs, move on. Consider the consequences of trying to shoehorn your business into a poorly fit system: Loss of productivity, high training costs, and rearrangement of your business processes, for starts. It’s not worth it! Eliminate software that has too many features that fall into the “lavish” or “unimportant“ category. Disregard anything too complex if your organization isn’t staffed to handle it. Shy away from inflexible packages that force you to change your processes to suit its needs. Finally, if flexible reporting is a priority, refrain from software with proprietary databases that limit your access.
For each commercial application that makes your “short list”, keep an eye out for potential drawbacks and hidden costs such as large support or licensing fees, and hardware or software keys that limit your use.
In the end, you will have found either: 1) a package that is a very good fit or 2) that you didn’t find anything. Choice #2 is not so bad. Many businesses find that their needs are unique enough that they are better off not purchasing a commercial package.
In Part 2, I’ll discuss implementing a custom software solution that addresses the unique needs of your business. A process whereby YOU become the creator of the solution.
In Part 1, I discussed how to define and execute your search for a commercial software application. If you discovered a viable solution through this process, great! However, if you were unable to find a package that suited your needs, your alternative is to create custom software.
The advantage of custom software is that you are the creator. You can design it to be flexible so you can adapt it to your changing needs. You can build it for your users so that not only will they accept the new system, they will be excited about using it. Finally, you can mold it to your businesses processes so that it reflects your unique way of doing things. In the end, you will have a system that is distinctively yours.
To start the process of creating your own software, you’ll need two things: the project specification and a software developer. The specification describes how the final product will behave: inputs/outputs, user screens, reports, and database or file structures. Be sure to enlist key employees and/or business partners in this process. They will have valuable insights into what works and what doesn’t. The developer will take these ideas and turn them into reality - the software program.
In your commercial-software search (from Part I of this series), you developed criteria that defined the desired solution. These criteria, as well as some of the pros and cons of the commercial packages you considered, will form the requirements for your custom software. Even if you had difficulty defining your criteria, you can still describe a “vision” of what it is that you want. In either case, your requirements, ideas and/or visions will make up the project specification.
Now that you have your specification, you need to find a developer to create the software. Start with your network of contacts for some qualified leads: peers in the community, business associates, and local business organizations. You should look for developers that strive to understand your business and listen to your ideas. The most important aspect is your relationship with the consultant. Is this someone you can trust? Are you comfortable with their proposals and recommendations? Remember, your relationship will probably last a number of years.
With development underway, a critical aspect now becomes how you manage your project. Maintaining control over cost and scope is very important. Because you are directing the design of the software, it will be tempting to add features at every little whim. Instead, approach the project in phases, refining the current phase before moving to the next.
In conclusion, with proper planning and management, your custom software project will produce the ideal tool for your business, while giving you some personal satisfaction in having a hand in it’s creation.
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