Five questions to ask before buying a new tool

Before buying a tool, make sure that you understand the problem, all of the alternative solutions to the problem, what else you'll need to implement the solution, and whether it's a problem you should even try to solve on your own. Developing a routine before buying tools will help to prevent purchasing tools that you'll never use.

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.