If you've made it so that IT is involved in your SMB's software selection process, you're one step ahead of the game. Here are the reasons it's important for IT to be involved before and not afterward.
Selecting software in an SMB can be a bit challenging, especially if you're transitioning your IT organization. Like many small businesses, IT can typically be looked at as the computer fix it group. Whatever the business wants to do, we can chuck it over the wall to IT to implement.
Before we get into the "How to's," let's review the "why's." Why is a software selection process important?
1. It lets you eliminate half-baked ideas. I have found many cases where the installation of a software packages began as some manager's brainchild but, once implemented, was too difficult to use or didn't really do what it needed to do. This is typically the result of shoot-from-the-hip tactics and only takes into account one vendor that the manager may have met at a cocktail party somewhere.
2. It lets you eliminate the proliferation of redundant systems. As organizations grow, a bunch of different applications can pop up that do the same thing. A scheduling software package is an example. Another would be some folks using ACT! and others using Salesforce.com. The more applications that are out there in the company, the higher the support costs and the thinner the expertise.
3. It helps with Project Portfolio investment makeup. The process helps focus expensive and talented IT resources on projects that are going to make the largest impact on the organization in cost reduction, revenue generation, or productivity enhancement. Additionally, many capital approval processes are not very mature in SMBs and capital decisions tend to be reactionary (i.e., we should probably fix that hole in the roof instead of buying a new coffee machine).
4. It gives you focus and offers solution orientation. The process helps the business side focus on what is really important in the software and can also help quantify the qualitative. Additionally, bringing in several vendors that operate in the same space will allow for a much more objective comparison and they may actually bring in approaches, modules, or features that had not been thought of originally that may be beneficial. Additionally, you can be there to keep the salespeople on task and to challenge areas where they try to throw a fast one by the business managers. The conversation changes very noticeably when IT is in the same meeting as the business managers.
5. Support. The process also allows the business to take into account support and management. If there is a software package out there that requires data entry, has a resource been assigned to that duty? This is not just IT support either. The process allows the business and IT to define roles and responsibilities with regard to the application. Who will be the subject matter expert? On the IT side, you can determine if the software company will be around in a few years, judge support network breadth and third-party consultant/contract network size and depth.
6. It allows success measurement and follow-through. What will we be able to do when the project is complete? What were the revenue targets? Have we hit them yet? Will we hit them by the deadline we set in the project planning phase? What do we need to change to make our goal? Follow-through is very important. Sometimes a business case calls for the elimination of headcount. As the time approaches to let those resources go, things pop up and it doesn't occur. Additionally, some applications or projects require some process management, like making sure all printing goes through the new print shop instead of Kinko's. When other contracts expire, you can bring them into the application instead of allowing them to auto-renew.
7. Buy-in. Finally, getting buy-in from all those involved is key to the success of many application projects. By including all of the stakeholders in the process, you increase the chance of a successful implementation. Large software packages tend to affect different stakeholders in different ways and including everyone in the process to view the big picture. If a software package makes one person's job 20% harder, but six other people's job 50% more efficient, that person who will be signing up to work harder will be more likely to perform if he or she can see the full impact.