Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Defining Process is Key to Selecting Software

Readership of this blog picks up greatly when I write about specific software products. I’d like to think that’s because I am a famous expert on the topic, but suspect it’s simply that people are always looking for information about which products to buy. Given the volume of information already available on the Internet, this seems a little surprising. But given the quality of that information, perhaps not.

Still, no matter how pleased I am to attract more readers, nothing can replace talking directly to a software vendor. And not just talking, but actually seeing and working with their software. I’ve run across this many times over the years: people buy a product for a specific purpose without really understanding how it will do what they have in mind. Then, sometimes literally within minutes of installing it, they find it isn’t what they need.

This doesn’t mean every software purchase must be preceded by a test installation. But it does mean your pre-purchase research has to be thorough enough that you understand how the software will meet your goals. Sometimes there’s enough information on their Web site to know this; sometimes it takes a sales demonstration; sometimes you have to load a trial copy and play with it. Sometimes nothing less than a true proof of concept—complete with live data and key functionality—will do.

So how do you know when you know enough to buy? That’s the tricky part. You must define what you want to the system to do—that is, your requirements—and understand what capabilities the system needs to do it. The only way I know to do this is to work through the process flow of the system: a step-by-step description of the inputs, processing and outputs needed to accomplish the desired outcome. You then identify the system capabilities needed at every stage in the process. Of course, this is harder than it sounds when systems are complicated and there are many ways to do things.

The level of detail required depends on the situation. But my point today is simply that you have to think things through and visualize how the software will accomplish your goals. If you can't yet do that, you’re not ready to make a purchase.

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