What’s the better way to go, implement software as is or customize? Engage in a fixed-fee project or a la carte services? Over the past 30 years in my work as a software consultant, I’ve helped many firms work through the pros and cons of each scenario. This post summarizes my recommendations for controlling your firm’s overall project scope and cost. By focusing on these five areas, you should be better able to determine exactly what you’re signing up for to avoid surprises later.
1. Document how you’re doing things today
When you’re preparing to evaluate a new software system and want to minimize customizations later, it’s always a good idea to begin by defining your business processes and your business requirements. This way you can see how well your existing business processes fit into an out-of-the-box system. If there are gaps in functionality or how you capture data, you’ll need to account for that. Either the firm or the software will need to change. Knowing this ahead of time helps simplify the eventual effort – either change management at the firm or the software customization.
If you don’t want to customize the software, then you must commit to taking the software as is and adapting the firm to how the software runs. For some smaller firms, this may not be an issue. But for others, there could be a potential gap in functionality, how your firm does things, or how you capture data compared to the standards. If that occurs, then ask your software vendor for a recommendation on the best way to bridge the gap.
2. Look under the hood when it comes to fixed-price services
Today there are more and more fixed-price contracts for software implementations, especially for small-scale implementations. But regardless of the scope, it’s important to ask exactly what is included in fixed-price service fees so you can figure out how much help you’re going to get in the implementation. To use an automotive analogy – you need to look under the hood and see exactly how big the engine is.
There are not typically an unlimited number of hours available for fixed-price implementations. You’ll want to understand how many hours will be spent setting up the system and how many will be dedicated to showing you how it works. You’ll want to know if application consultants will be available to solve any issues that come up and to make sure the software works the way your firm wants it to work. These are all important considerations to know ahead of time.
3. Inventory the information you give to management
After implementing new software, your professional staff will expect to get the same information – if not better – to help them manage the business. Therefore, it’s important to document what information you provide in the way of reports or dashboards.
You’ll want to interview your core management team and determine what’s most important to them. Then when you’re evaluating new systems, you can be sure that the chosen solution matches your business requirements and that you’re able to provide the data that’s needed.
4. Evaluate the technical skillset of your internal staff
When you first implement new software, everything may be working fine. Your reports may deliver exactly the information management asked to see. But if your firm’s needs change, how self-sufficient will your staff be? If there’s a gap in functionality, how are you going to fill it? Do you have the skillsets internally to build a custom report or add a column to a report that’s important to them? Or will you have to rely on the software vendor or outsource the work? If you don’t have the skills internally, there’s a cost associated in time and dollars that should be factored into the overall project.
It’s good to know when evaluating a system what the long-term implications will be should you have to rely on others to make minor technical changes. If you’re not sure how easy it will be to customize a report, for example, ask for a demonstration during the evaluation.
5. Evaluate your bill templates
Some firms have different practice areas like bankruptcy or intellectual property practices that demand specific elements of data to be provided on a pre-bill or invoice. Typically, in a stock implementation, you’ll be using templates out of the box. If your data doesn’t align with the template, you’ll be getting into a customization cycle with your vendor.
Therefore, you’ll want to document your firm’s bill templates and if at any time you had to develop custom elements into them. You’ll want to compare what you have to the system during the evaluation process so you can spot any gaps. And again, have the software vendor recommend the best method to move forward should there be any gaps.
The more you do in advance, the better you can control the outcome
Whichever path you choose for your software implementation, the more you can do up front in your planning and evaluation, the more you can control the outcome. Identifying all of your objectives prior to a system evaluation helps to ensure that you’ve identified the right scope. You can identify any gaps in functionality, data, or internal skillsets and address them in your initial contract with your software vendor. Then you can successfully budget for the project and eliminate or minimize any surprises or change orders.