End business users are increasingly involved in IT decision making. But do they know enough about IT to make the right choices? Here are 10 questions they need to ask when they start doing business with outside IT vendors.
1: Does the software work with other software?
A new technology or software solution might be the perfect fit for a particular business need, but what if business areas besides your department need to access it or you have to add critical information? One of the challenges business decision makers face when they make their own IT decisions is thinking about future integration needs for the technology. The IT department is familiar with the ways information and technology can interface with each other and can provide insights on the flexibility of the solution for working with other technologies and systems that the company already has. But business users might not know of the other systems and areas within the company where the technology has to "fit" to expand its capability.
2: What level of security and data safekeeping does the vendor have?
Companies should always ask prospective vendors what their specific security and data safekeeping practices are and then decide whether these practices are robust enough to meet internal and regulatory requirements. One way to determine this is to ask the vendor for its security and data safekeeping warranties and ask to see its recent third-party security audits.
3: Does the vendor have its own data center?
If you are looking at subscribing to a cloud-based service, ask the vendor if it owns and operates its own data center. Vendors with their own data centers have greater control over daily operations than those that outsource their solutions to third-party vendors.
4: How often are new releases of the software offered?
Updating software to keep pace with the business is important. It is an indication that the vendor has the know-how and the resources to meet your needs for the long term as well as for the short term. So too is coordinating the installation, training, and integration of each new software release from the vendor with your business operations and other systems. If you're working directly with an outside vendor and your internal IT is not involved, ask the vendor how often it issues new product releases and what level of support for those releases it guarantees. The vendor should also have a problem escalation process and a single point of contact you can go to for problem resolution.
5: What service level agreements does the vendor provide?
Before signing a contract with a vendor, ask the vendor what service level agreements (SLAs) it has in place. For instance, if you need to call the vendor about a problem or a question, what timeframe will the vendor commit to for answering your call? And if you have a problem, what is the vendor's average time for problem resolution?
6: What underlying hardware does the software run on?
You should determine whether the system you're buying can be installed on hardware your company already has. If it comes on a stand-alone server that is installed in your department and it's not flexible enough to run on another platform later, it is likely to be expensive and will probably not work well with your company's other systems.
7: What kinds of enhancements/customization does the vendor offer?
You'll want to know the vendor's flexibility for incorporating some of the business enhancements to the software that you're likely to want and how easily the solution will be able to accommodate them. Will it require pay-for customization by the vendor that will take time? Or are there easier ways to add business rules, processes, and applications to the solution that you can do yourself?
8: How strong is the vendor's disaster recovery capability?
Does the vendor have a published disaster recovery plan? How often does it test disaster recovery? If the vendor's solution develops a problem, how long can you run your business without it? If the solution is absolutely mission-critical, be sure you sign up with a vendor that is a capable of immediate disaster recovery and that can restore the software in a short time — and get the commitment from the vendor in writing.
9: How hard is a deconversion if you have to leave the vendor?
No one likes to think about exit strategies when you're inking a contract with a vendor, but your contract should always contain a termination clause in which the vendor warrants that it will cooperate fully with you should you ever choose to leave. Deconversions from one vendor to the next can be difficult and emotionally draining, because vendors don't like to lose customers.
10: Do you own any the reports you develop with the vendor's software?
If what you develop is strategic and you want to protect it as your intellectual property, find out what the vendor's policy is about applications or reports that are developed on the vendor's software platform — especially if the vendor offers a cloud-based solution. Most cloud-based solution providers consider a report or application developed on their platform as being available to all of their clients. If maintaining the projects you develop as your own is important, be sure to include this in your contract.
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What other critical questions should end business users focus on when making tech purchasing decisions? Share your advice with fellow TechRepublic members.
Mary E. Shacklett is president of Transworld Data, a technology research and market development firm. Prior to founding the company, Mary was Senior Vice President of Marketing and Technology at TCCU, Inc., a financial services firm; Vice President of Product Research and Software Development for Summit Information Systems, a computer software company; and Vice President of Strategic Planning and Technology at FSI International, a multinational manufacturing company in the semiconductor industry. Mary is a keynote speaker and has more than 1,000 articles, research studies, and technology publications in print.