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Practical Steps to Finding the Right Solution

So, now that we have a basic understanding of the two spheres within which the CM solution must fit, what practical steps do we take to find the right piece of technology to help solve this very serious business problem? Look at the suggested steps below:

  1. Research the available solutions. At the outset of the evaluation, do some research on the solutions available in the marketplace. This statement may sound a little obvious, but often companies will simply look at the "market leaders" or solutions that the IT staff already is aware of. While this isn't necessarily a recipe for disaster, it does limit the choices somewhat. Sometimes the most appropriate solution isn't a well-known package and it may take longer to find it, but installing the wrong package is worse.

  2. Narrow the field of potential solutions. Narrowing the field of solutions will allow you to concentrate on just the solutions that make the most sense on first blush. You can usually dismiss certain solutions based on obvious factors (such as technology or social factors) right from the start. For instance, if you run a Windows NT/2000 data center and a particular solution only operates in a Linux environment, it's a good bet that the solution isn't for you. In general, keep the number of solutions you select in this step to around 10; this will give you plenty of choices, but not create an inordinate amount of work in the following steps.

  3. Send out "object evaluation criteria" response forms. Try to get a handle on the solution and the company that makes it by creating a response form with questions like the following:

    • What kind of operating system does your solution run on?

    • How many users can simultaneously contribute content at once?

    • Does your solution integrate with StarOffice? How?

    Questions like these are important criteria in the search for both the technical and the social match to your company. They will also help you further narrow the solutions in the next step. A sample evaluation criteria form is shown at the end of this article.

    Tip

    After this step, you'll begin to get a flood of calls and requests for meetings. Each vendor who receives your evaluation form will want to meet with you and begin the sales process. This is certainly their prerogative, but I would recommend keeping any meetings relatively short, simply explaining that you're evaluating CM solutions and want more information than their web site provides.

  4. Listen to the analysts and go to events. Both Forrester and Gartner periodically review various technology solutions. Content management solutions are no exception. If you already have a subscription (assuming that you subscribe to the right lens), you should be able to get reports like Forrester's Tech Rankings for CM solutions; Gartner has similar periodic reviews. Also, go to events like Content World, where you can often meet representatives from the vendors and talk to them about their solutions or visit sites like CMSWatch that track the industry. At this point you should probably start to narrow the potential candidates.

  5. Reduce the overall number of candidates and call them in for a meeting. Based on everything that you seen, read, and gathered, you should be able to narrow the field of players to around five (you could have six or four). This should be a relatively easy number of vendors to manage. Talk to their technical sales reps, talk about pricing, and ask to see a canned demo (they usually have one). Some vendors are even willing to build a small demonstration application, based on your publicly available web property; if you can convince them to do this, even better. What you're really looking for here is the following:

    • Do they seem interested? Some vendors are just looking for the quick sale. This is obviously their choice, but stick with vendors that seem interested in a longer-term relationship. Regardless of the solution, this technology will be a radical change for the organization. Salespeople who are in it for the relationship, not just the sale, are going to be more willing to help you with the inevitable issues that arise once the sale is complete.

    • What is "out-of-the-box" and what is custom development? Some vendors may try to pass off their demonstration application as "out-of-the-box" functionality, when they spent several weeks or months perfecting the demo. Ask questions like these: Did you have to write code to make that happen? What parts of this will I get when I install the software? What will I have to build?

    • Review the vendor's response form with them. Sales engineers will usually be the ones who answered the form, or sometimes the vendor works with partners to answer these forms. You want to make sure that the people sitting in front of you know the answers too. This may seem like nitpicking, but if the answers they give don't match the form or they can't give the answers at all, it may mean that this vendor isn't for you. Vendors should know their product, and so should the salespeople who represent these vendors.

  6. Talk to each vendor's customers. While not an exact science, existing customers are a good gauge of the solution. It's true that you'll always have customers who are either gung-ho or completely disgusted about a vendor or a product. It's also true that more will be either simply happy or disappointed. In general, throw out responses from companies that are extremely positive or negative (unless all you can find is one or the other); concentrate on companies with a mix. The extremes are usually not a good indicator of the actual solution, but the "in-betweens" are; they'll give you honest answers about the pluses or minuses of the solution. When talking with these customers, ask whether the solution was implemented by a partner or by the firm's professional services arm. This is an important distinction, since it's often not the technology but the implementation that most customers are either happy or disappointed about.

  7. Reduce the candidates and get a demo copy of the software. At this point, you should have a pretty good idea of which solutions you like and don't like. Reduce the number of solutions you're looking at to two or three. Then contact the vendors to see whether they're willing to install the software at your location for a trial or demo. Some vendors offer publicly available demonstration versions of their software; others don't. This factor shouldn't be heavily weighed, but it will indicate the amount of work you'll need to do to complete this step.

    It's very unlikely that you've gotten the "real" story about the solutions you've looked that. That is, what do you really have to do to get a solution running on the technology? It's the same reason that you test-drive cars and have the ability to return items to a store—you need to "test" the product. Some vendors absolutely won't want to comply. If you really like the solution, trying offering to pay for some time with one of their professional services people or a consulting partner. This may not sound like a good idea, but if you consider that you'll likely spend tens of thousands of dollars for a good solution, a few thousand up front to assure that you're getting the right solution will be well worthwhile.

    NOTE

    It's likely you won't have been trained on the solution and therefore the test or demo won't be as effective as it could be. If you're not comfortable with that fact, try an alternative approach: Attend the vendor's training class for the product. This will generally be all the information you'll need.

  8. Pick your product. Given all that you've learned about the solutions and all that you've learned about your organization, what product fits best?

  9. Find a development partner. While most firms have a professional services arm (and rightly so), it's better to work with a partner for two reasons:

    • The professional services arm of software vendors are generally interested in the straight installation of the product. It's likely that they don't have broad expertise in software development and therefore may not be able to handle the inevitable "gotchas" when their software mixes with your environment.

    • Partners are generally better at implementations, since their business is built on it. Software vendors, while good at developing software, don't usually have the same discipline when it comes to professional services. For instance, does the professional services arm have a standard development methodology? What kind of documentation will you get at the end of the project? How many developers are available to help you after the initial implementation? In other words, how hard will it be for you to get help?

  10. Get trained. Just because you have the partner on site, that doesn't mean that you shouldn't know the product as well. Partners are great for the initial implementation—helping you to get the project off the ground. However, what happens when the partner isn't around or you have to "fix" or add something to the application? Sure, you could hire the partner again (they'd love that), but it's probably more appropriate to have staff on site to help add or fix. Work alongside the partner as the project progresses. Mix your resources with the development team. Keep in mind that you must allow the partner to manage these resources during the project.

Hopefully, if you've followed these steps, you'll end up with not only a content management system that's a good technical fit, but also a good social fit.

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