Arthur O’Connor is taking a rare week off from writing his column.
If your company is considering an investment in Web technology, I feel your pain. It’s a pretty difficult task to understand exactly what you are buying. In fact, a large part of my work in 2001 focused on helping companies filter through marketing hype and technical jargon to make sound licensing decisions.
Buying software is tough business. After all, how are companies supposed to tell the difference between two “J2EE-compliant commerce platforms that support XML-based integration with leading ERP, CRM, and SCM applications”?
My recommendation for all companies is to avoid the techno-trap and eliminate any focus on jargon. If you understand the underlying processes of how your business generates revenue or how it can potentially become more efficient, then you’ve completed 90 percent of the decision-making process. The remaining 10 percent comes by forcing prospective vendors to answer tough questions like these:
- Can you provide a case study? Working examples are the clearest way to understand the capabilities of any given technology or service. In fact, this question is probably the most effective in the selection process as a means of sorting out the pool of potential vendors. A couple of things to look for are relevance and references: First, the case should speak clearly to the objective you are trying to achieve; second, the vendor should be willing to bridge a conversation between you and companies currently using the technology.
- Can you walk me through an implementation? Some of the darker secrets of the software industry revolve around implementation costs. For some types of technology, customization and deployment costs can exceed license fees by sevenfold. I recommend that you force vendors to outline an implementation timeline before licensing any technology. It’s an effective way to uncover product gaps and areas requiring customization.
- How will this improve my business? This is a zinger for most product representatives. Explanations should be clear, supported by metrics, and relevant to your companies needs. If you start to sense marketing spin, show the vendor the door.
Those basic questions cut to the core of a vendor’s capability and measure the vendor’s willingness to support marketing claims. These days, good vendors understand that technology is not invested in simply for technology’s sake. There should be some basic value proposition in how a product or service will improve the operations and profitability of a business.
Be that as it may, marketing jargon is here to stay. Here is a short glossary to help you decipher marketing collateral from potential service providers or software companies:
- Commerce platform. This is one of the vaguest descriptions of Web technology ever invented. Most of the time, it is impossible to understand what a commerce platform does without asking a sales representative. After all, what type of commerce are we talking about? Consumer sales? Business sales? Partner sales? It’s a super-charged term that without some clear explanation really means nothing.
- Open integration platform. Here is another classic term that sounds like something important but for most software products is a moot point. The important question to ask is if a product adheres to some type of standards-based programming language, preferably Java 2 Enterprise Edition or Microsoft’s .NET. If the answer is yes, then you will have an easier time integrating the package with future software or with legacy systems.
- BI solution. This one is one of my favorites. After all, who wouldn’t want their business to be more intelligent? Basically, business intelligence (BI) is an inflated term for reporting and statistical analysis tools. Many companies practice some form of “BI” without even knowing it. Recall last month’s detailed sales report? That is BI. Look for tools that help you accelerate reporting capabilities or improve the quality of your reports.
- CRM solution. Customer relationship management (CRM) could be the marketing term of the year. I’ve seen everything from content management tools to production planning software described as a “CRM solution.” This industrywide gravitation toward CRM has undermined the value of individual solutions and has confused most customers.
The list could go on forever. Just remember, though, that tough questions can neutralize marketing spin. Don’t be distracted by jargon; instead, focus on the core processes of your business when making technology investment decisions.