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Can you Find it – Business © 2017 THE FULL STORY…FINDING THE RIGHT IT MATCH Published in Can you find it Business Edition on Tuesday, March 1st 2015
ICT adviser Joel Teague continues his series of articles looking at how to make sure you get the right IT solutions for your business.

LAST month I discussed the issue of determining where and how computer systems (or better ones) can be used to improve a business. This month I’ll address the task of choosing hardware, software and – just as importantly – the right supplier to help put it all into practice. (If you missed the first instalment you can email me at joel.teague@teagus.com for a copy or look on the Can you Find it – Business website, www.canyoufindit.co.uk.)

System and supplier selection is a very wide subject, and it isn’t possible to provide one particular approach that’s good for everyone. However, the same golden rule does apply across the board: This is a business project, not a technical one. Computers are just tools for improving your bottom line.

Aside from that (and my usual plea for everyone to get some specialist help rather than taking this complex and time-consuming task on themselves) the process of choosing systems is unique to every business.

If you are looking for a system to address a small, simple task in your company you probably don’t need to take a particularly structured approach. Once you’ve identified some potential systems you can use trial versions to evaluate the best match. However, if you are looking for the new mainstay system of your business, it is essential to approach it in a way that keeps you focused on business objectives as you wade through the inevitable piles of information and sales blurb that will end up on your desk.

Assuming that you’ve identified the part of your company that will benefit from a new system, I’d suggest starting by answering question: “What is the business objective of this system?”

If you are simply trying to support or automate a set process in order to improve reliability or lower costs, your objective is simple: look for the system and supplier that will prove most reliable and which will fit your requirement most accurately.

If you are looking to this system to help increase revenue or gain a competitive edge, the attributes above become the starting point for selection. The overall emphasis moves towards flexibility, innovation and differentiation. It also brings into play the importance of knowing what your competitors are using – a competitive edge is hard to find when you’re competing against people using the same systems.

Last month I briefly mentioned sources of information when finding potential systems and suppliers. Again, the best approach will depend on who you are, what you’re looking for, and your particular preferences:

If you are an experienced user of the Web, this is usually a good place to start. Bear in mind that the biggest companies often have the best marketing budgets to make themselves most visible on the Internet, so make sure you search in a variety of ways to find those diamonds in the rough – the small but inventive companies with great products, a will to please and tiny marketing budgets.

If the system you’re seeking is related to your specific industry, then try to stay within industry sources during your search. Industry magazines, exhibitions, conferences, websites and good old networking with other companies is likely to reveal not only the contenders, but useful information about them that won’t be in their sales literature.

The North West region is also well catered for in terms of support bodies and networks to help with ICT-related issues for companies. Contact your local Business Link (www.businesslinksussex.co.uk) – they should be able to steer you in the right direction, and flag up any grant or consultancy assistance that may be available. Similarly, the Chambers of Commerce (www.Sussexchamber.com) have various schemes and groups who may be able to help, and the www.eSussex.org website is a good source of supplier information.

To avoid common problems during your research, I’d recommend guarding against:

Assuming that more expensive means ‘better’.

Taking the supplier’s word for it – not because they’re necessarily going to fib – but because they will never have access to the same information as their users. It is worth finding some existing customers – not the references provided by the supplier – and asking them for their opinions. An objective recommendation or horror story can save you from disaster.

Assuming that the contract or project approach is what you need. Make sure the financial model penalises (and doesn’t reward) late delivery or poor performance. The ICT industry is not known for its project reliability, so unless you can fix costs you should assume a large overrun on estimates.

Assuming that the supplier knows the best approach or that they will understand your business. Quiz the suppliers about their approach to projects and make sure it is business-led rather than driven by technical considerations. You should be involved in the whole process, or you’ll risk getting a system that misses the mark.

Unless you have found exactly what you need at a good price, you should consider the possibility of having what you need written. The subject is wide enough to warrant a separate article at a later date (especially regarding the ups and downs of development projects), but for now consider having your system written for you if:

1. You can’t find a package that works the way what you need it to.

2. You expect your business to evolve and innovate a great deal.

3. You are trying to support a process that you need to do better than your opposition.

4. You have lots of users and quoted ’per-user’ charges are too high.

5. You want the system to increase company asset value.

An ICT supplier is just as important as the system or service they supply. If they are the people charged with installing and supporting the system that is the mainstay of your business, this company is going to have a dramatic effect on your company. But getting it right isn’t so much a matter of finding the best supplier as finding the right one.

If you select a supplier that is geared up for a different type of client than your company you could encounter problems. If your company is a fraction of the normal size of your supplier’s clients, you may find yourself at the back of the service queue. Conversely, if you’re after a 200-user Enterprise Resource Planning system it may not be best to get a one-man-band to supply the whole lot.

Some suppliers (especially local ones) who can provide some but not all of the services involved may suggest a consortium approach. For this to work it is essential that there is good project management and airtight legal structures in place. If done properly it is an excellent way to make use of local talent, and it does enable you to cherry-pick the appropriate expertise for each aspect of a project. This is becoming a common way to approach projects – especially website construction, where freelance designers, copywriters and programmers can be brought together to perfectly match a specific project requirement.

There is a compromise to be found between reliability and personal service. Bigger companies can never provide the same flexibility and focused attention of a smaller local supplier, but smaller companies are usually less organised and can rarely respond as well when things get sticky. For example, when the storms struck in January, if your network supplier only had two engineers, you could have been waiting a while for a visit. A company using a national supplier with a carefully managed team of support staff with procedures, systems to deal with such things may have had a quicker response – but which supplier is more likely to remember their way around your particular network?

It’s a tricky balance, and entirely down to your particular needs. If you don’t mind a bit of seat-of-the-pants approach to customer service, go local and small. If you don’t mind a one-size-fits-all approach (and probably higher support costs) and like things to be structured and organised with plenty of backup, go for the bigger supplier.

Before making your final selection, I would strongly suggest taking the time (and hassling the suppliers if necessary) to make sure you know exactly who you are going to be dealing with. Get summary CVs for everyone who is likely to be directly involved in your project and look for a good spread of appropriate experience and expertise.

If it turns out that you’re dealing with teenagers and people in a faraway land, you know why the price is low. You also know to be very careful about getting lots of references: remember, almost all IT projects hinge on relevant industry experience and proper understanding of your business. The more experienced, non-technical people a supplier can bring to your project, the less time and stress you will have to expend answering questions that ought to be obvious to anyone who understands your needs. Take the time to chat with the senior members of the proposed project team about your business in general; you’ll soon know whether they ‘get’ what you do.

All of this advice is very generic and at the end of the day you are the only person qualified to know which system and supplier is best for your business. Hopefully some of this article will help to lower the risks and help you make a successful selection. Next month I’ll attack the last step: implementing and managing a successful system.

Joel Teague is a TMB accredited ICT adviser. He can be contacted at Teagus Ltd, a Londonn company providing IT advisory and development services for business: Tel. 0870 1417014, Website: www.teagus.com, Email: joel.teague@teagus.com

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