April 1 2009 10:37 AM

Don't try this at home! We hear and see this often while watching reality TV or the Discovery Channel's MythBusters, but the same applies to your work environment. We frequently see firms attempt to leverage procurement procedures or personal experience when looking to acquire new hardware or software solutions. Repeatedly, these situations go badly, and the clients get burned. Here's how not to be a burn victim.

Can you Identify the Problem?
Whether it's document composition, output or spool management, campaign management, or ADF workflow, software solutions are challenging to evaluate. For example, one solution includes modules that assist with data extraction and aggregation, file preparation into the document composition engine, print stream manipulation and spool management, and ADF metafile creation. This, all from a single vendor - at least all of the sales reps have the same business card logo - and is reported to be modular and integrated, making deployment and use simple and painless. The collateral is very professional and the charts intelligible. On the surface it appears to be a single, complete solution. Or is it?

The second offering is a combination of best-of-breed solutions from a variety of vendors that have been brought together to address a specific business issue set. One firm will play the role of lead and coordinate the subordinates' activities and deliveries, reducing your firm's necessity to do so. Each individual solution is the market leader, offering unparalleled functionality and capability. There is a team of integrators that will work with your IT and operations to reduce the disruption and smooth the deployment bumps.

Costs are about the same, or maybe not as close as you'd like. This matters little, as funding typically expands to meet the required solution with adequate justification. Glowing references abound, both industry-leading brands as well as mid-tier newcomers - have you ever spoken to a bad one? Not surprisingly, deployment promises match your project conversion and rollout schedule as well. Which solution is selected? Which is the best fit? Maybe a better question is: what is the superior long-term value?

An Obvious Answer?
Most everyone wants to make good decisions, and to do so requires good data or information. Without complete and accurate information, the decision process fails and we compromise the potential outcomes. In recent years, our Fortune 500 clients have introduced a procurement "process or layer" into this acquisition process. Previously, it was the solution owners (operations) or support staff (IT) that ran the procurement process for those solutions that had significant impact to their environment. This procurement introduction, while not by definition a poor idea, has shown some cracks in its reasonableness and completeness.

Our experience is that either one of the solutions described above could be the most appropriate. Having a methodology that evaluates all the variables, understands how those technologies will be deployed in the existing environment, and equally as important, what is the history of these solution deployments within like situations - whether good or poor - is critical to understanding best fit. Only an independent and objective third-party with the technology, industry and market knowledge, as well as practical expertise gained from overseeing myriad solution selection processes, can provide the thought clarity and accurate information necessary to make the best decision.

Never looked at it like that? It happens all the time in other transactions. When buying property, we often turn to independent experts to assist with the evaluation and transaction, such as inspectors and agents. When it comes to significant, long-term purchases, we know expert guidance offers considerable benefit and high value. We simply wouldn't trust our own knowledge or experience, even though we fancy ourselves as savvy shoppers/consumers and purchase items every day. Being a consumer doesn't necessarily qualify us when making large, infrequent - but long lasting - acquisitions, at home or in business. And asking the perspective property seller makes little sense, but unfortunately has become the standard business practice of our time. Remember, don't let caveat emptor be your motto, and don't become a burn victim.

Kemal Carr is the President of Madison Advisors, an advisory firm that specializes in print and electronic communications. Kemal also acts as a principal analyst for Madison Advisors. He provides project-based advisory services designed to assist clients with business strategy and technology selection decisions. To contact Kemal, email kemalcarr@madison-advisors.com. For more information on Madison Advisors, visit www.madisonadvisors.com.