Nov 01 2006

Smart from the Start

Whether preparing a complex, companywide application rollout or choosing a workgroup scanner, a formal evaluation process can streamline and justify your decision.


Photo: Jeff Lendrum
Ministry Health Care and Affinity Health System CIO Will Weider suggests involving a non-IT person in a project so that someone outside IT is vested in its success.

You’ve been tasked with choosing a new technology for your company — perhaps a new notebook computer or a help-desk tool. Do you know where to begin? There are more than enough choices, and it’s a daunting task, but you can bring it under control by formalizing the evaluation process.

For any evaluation, you need to define your business needs, evaluate your technical choices and implement the product.

To formalize the purchasing process, the best place to start is to create a basis for establishing the need, which many refer to as a business case. Why do you need this technology? Is there a problem you are trying to fix or a need to be filled? Something will prompt the need for a new product, and you must know the details of what the prompt was and the need that is to be filled. You should be able to go into the evaluation looking for features you need, but not be swayed by additional features that may be irrelevant to your business.

Define the Need

“It’s easy to get intrigued by the technology and lose site of what problem you are trying to solve,” says Mike Miotto, manager of strategic infrastructure engineering at Ford Motor of Dearborn, Mich. “Understand your business. Understand marketing research about your business. Look broadly at Gartner, MIT and other research venues for what is being worked on, where they are in the hype curve and whether or not they are applicable to you.”

Use a Project Champion Agreement to help get buy-in from stakeholders on IT evaluations.

According to Will Weider, CIO of Ministry Health Care and Affinity Health System of Milwaukee, the most important part of any successful information technology project is ensuring that the business purpose is clear. Weider suggests involving a non-IT person, which he calls a project champion, to each project to ensure that the project aligns to the business and that someone outside IT is vested in its success.

A chart listing your weighted needs could be a useful tool, along with a short plan on how you’ll go about scoring products. Does this project touch end users or only involve the IT staff? If end users are involved, you’ll want their input. But you’ll also want to establish how to use that input at the onset of the process. Prior to your start, ensure that project participants understand their respective roles. The more specific your plan is at this point, the more smoothly the evaluation will progress.

Define Options

After you’ve defined why you need a new product, it’s time to evaluate your choices. Depending on the technology, there may be hundreds of choices or just a few.

If there are too many choices to evaluate them individually, you can quickly narrow the field by discarding any that don’t meet your primary needs (defined in the first step) or those that are outside your budget. If you don’t have enough choices, you may also discover that the needs you set are not realistic. If you can’t find any products to consider that fit all of your needs, you may have to go back and re-evaluate your priorities.

Here are a few specific things to keep in mind that can apply to any product or technology:

• Life cycle of the product: How often will it need to be refreshed? Are there yearly maintenance or licensing fees?

• Local support: If you have multiple offices, will you be able to get support everywhere? This is especially important to consider if you have international locations.

• Interaction with existing products: Are there complementary products to existing technologies already in place? Conversely, is there a risk of conflict with existing technology?

At Burt’s Bees, each new project starts with a project charter, says Tom Hines, director of information services at the 500-employee natural cosmetics company in Durham, N.C. “In the charter, we outline the project and talk about goals and outline the business justification,” Hines explains. “Who are the stakeholders and team members, and what are their roles in the process and the resources available?” After determining the technical versus business savvy of the individuals on the project team, the members each provide an assessment of the project.

Evaluate Carefully

You have your list of requirements, and you have your list of products for consideration. Feel free to rely on others at this point. Odds are that you aren’t the first person to ever evaluate this particular product.

Search for articles and reviews to see what others have to say. You shouldn’t base your decision on these evaluations alone, but it can be quite helpful to see what experiences other people have already had, particularly bad ones.

Depending on the product, you may or may not be able to have an evaluation product to test. If you’re able to obtain an evaluation version of each product you’re considering, it’s much easier to compare products side by side. Your evaluation plan should contain a complete list of features to be identified and tested for each product, which will allow you to compile the results for comparison. The weighted chart you create will come in handy — you can evaluate each product based on your important considerations, assigning a score based on performance and that is weighted according to each consideration. Then you can tally a final score for each product.

Jeff Bowden is the global information technology manager for Delmia (www.delmia.com), a maker of manufacturing systems in Auburn Hills, Mich.
CEO takeaway
Just because your IT staff or business managers want a new product or technology isn’t the same as actually needing it. If your company hasn’t formalized the
process for evaluating new technology, it’s time to start. Task your IT head to:

• Involve business owners as well as the IT team in any technology that touches end users.
• Ask where a proposed technology option meets and fails to meet requirements.
• Testing is critical — check to make sure a product performs in production the same way it did in testing.
•Weigh needs against risks, costs and the impact of adopting a new technology, particularly if it involves process change.
• Once the business case is accepted and the project implemented, track whether projected returns materialized and incorporate the feedback into your next project.