My father is a tool guy. He has more tools than any sane
person should have. I learned that there are a dozen different saws–each for a
different purpose. I’ve inherited this love for tools, although I get more crazy about gadgets than power tools. I realize that
I’m not alone. Often times I recognize an automatic instinct in clients towards
buying a software package to solve a problem — and
occasionally even a hardware purchase. Unfortunately, the tool–whatever it
is–is just a tool. It can’t solve the problem by itself. It needs to be
wrapped in a solution to solve any problem. Here are five questions to ask
before you buy a tool to try to solve a problem.

Do you understand the problem?

Most of the time IT professionals are so pressed for time
that they don’t make sure that they fully understand a problem before they try
to solve it. We talk about requirements for big projects but we often forget
that the same principles apply to smaller purchases.

For instance, a recent client was confronted with a group
that needed Act!. Of course, that was a solution, not
the problem. The problem was a basic contact management problem. They needed to
keep basic details of contacts for a group of people. The client already had
Exchange — but ended up purchasing Act! because the
requirements weren’t understood. The group that Act! was
purchased for is slowly moving back to an Outlook and Exchange public folder
solution. (To be clear, there are some problems for which Act! is the right
solution — it just wasn’t a good fit for this organization.)

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Even if you believe you understand the problem, verify this
understanding. Probe with “what if” questions and try alternative
solutions.

What’s the cost of the problem?

So the tool may help to solve the problem — but does the
cost of the problem outweigh the cost of the solution or solutions that you may
be proposing? Determining a hard cost for most problems is very difficult. What
is the cost for me not being able to effectively manage my appointments with a
PDA? Does the time it takes to recopy calendar events from Outlook into a paper
notebook or print copies of my calendar and put it in my binder outweigh the
cost of a PDA?

Even though there aren’t always easy answers when time
savings are involved; even rough estimates are better than not evaluating the
cost of the problem. Costs like time and lost opportunities may be difficult to
measure but they create a sense for how big a problem it is — and therefore the
potential size of the solution.

One customer wanted a workflow system that would route sales
orders through the delivery part of the business to ensure that every order got
processed in a timely manner. The solutions that would fit their needs would
cost in excess of $30,000. The problem is that their current process was mostly
effective so the time they were spending and the opportunities that they
believed they were losing only warranted about a $10,000 solution. So they
didn’t end up buying one.

What are the alternatives?

With every problem there are a variety of solutions that can
be chosen to solve the problem. However, we often get locked into a singular
mindset of what the solution should be. We see the coolest, slickest, or
fanciest solution as the best solution to the problem, when often the problem
doesn’t need that fancy of a solution.

A recent client was looking at network monitoring tools to
help them manage their network. More specifically, they were trying to make
sure that they were looking at the event logs every day and needed to report on
system uptime. After looking at large suites of products like NetIQ’sAppManager and Microsoft Operations Manager,
they finally settled on two small utilities that reported uptime and notified
them when they had events in the event log. The cost was a small fraction of
the larger more comprehensive systems. The solution wasn’t quite as elegant but
it was certainly reliable and acceptable.

In other cases the answer is sometimes a manual process. It
may just have easily turned out that each morning the operations person filled
out a log that contained the important events and any downtime that was
experienced in the preceding day.

What else is required?

It sounds elementary, but if you’re going to buy a tool
you’ll need to be able to use it. When purchasing a tool you may need to think
about getting a professional to install it. Getting small amounts of focused
assistance in implementing tools tends to result in a better solution quicker.

It’s not just about getting the right help to implement the
tool, but also about understanding what other changes or additions are
necessary to make the tool work. For instance, a client was asking about a
short term expansion of hard drive storage for a server they had. One of the
solutions floating around was an external USB hard drive–a common solution to
short-term storage needs. However, the problem was that the servers didn’t
support USB 2.0, so an additional purchase of a USB adapter was required. The
server, however, didn’t have any free slots available. What was supposed to be
a simple solution turned out to be a mess simply because of some prerequisites
that were missed.

Should you try to find the solution yourself?

The final question to ask before buying a tool is whether
you should even be trying to find the solution yourself. While we all like to
think that we can find the best option from a list of candidates, that’s not
always the case. Sometimes the experience of an expert can help to avoid the
problems of picking the wrong solution.

A quick look at document managements systems and you may
conclude that a low-cost alternative, like Microsoft Office SharePoint Portal Server will serve your needs. However,
considerations like the amount of volume to be put into the system and how the
documents will be added may mean that SharePoint Portal Server isn’t the right
solution for your application. There are no hard and fast rules for when a
solution like SharePoint will or won’t fit an organization–it requires
experience to see when it has and when it hasn’t worked.

When selecting a solution you may need to take a step back,
determine how much it would cost to get a few hours of consultation about the
problem, and evaluate whether the problem warrants some expert advice.