1. Your Future Operational Model?
Software providers can almost always support both large and small operations. The key question is whether you are looking to support a singularly focused or a multi-focused operation. For example, if you are focused on crisis calls and only crisis calls, then the architecture of your new solution only needs to support a single interface with a common workflow for your users and a singularly focused set of reports.
Alternately, if you can foresee circumstances where you would want to support crisis calls, homeless intake, elderly services, disaster relief, and other family service programs (through your own offices or through partner agencies), then you are looking for a software solution that is designed to support multi-purpose, multi-partner use. In this case you are looking for the software’s capacity to support different interfaces for different customers, client management tools that flex for different purposes, and reports which can be customized to fit fundamentally different needs.
Most importantly, you are looking for a system architecture that allows some partners to work completely privately, some collaboratively, and some fully integrated--and these options need to be concurrently deployable.
2. User Flexible or Provider Flexible?
You know that your needs will change over time. The question is whether or not your software platform can change with you, and if so, at what cost. To be responsive and to keep costs down you should be able to change all of the following without additional spending or programming requirements:
- “Look and feel” and branding
- Narrative content and structure
- Menus and navigation
- Access rights and permissions
- Data fields and how they are arranged and organized
- Reports and data exports
3. Forward Leaning or Laurel Resting?
One of the most difficult yet most important evidence to review is that which demonstrates that the provider has continually updated not only their feature set, but the core architecture of their software over time. The point is to find a provider who has the proven ability to improve and upgrade continually so that your technical platform is both reliable and continually advancing so you will not need to shift to another technical platform for a long time to come.
Look for not just a list of new features, but substantial shifts in core product lines, server architecture, and fundamental rebuilds that demonstrate the firm’s focus on deep level upgrades. Just as a house needs maintenance as time goes by, so does software. Make sure the software is more than new paint and carpet (aka features) covering up old, crumbling foundations.
4. Service Assumptions or Guarantees?
Service Level Agreements are a set of promises your software company makes to you by specifying the levels of performance and customer service which you can expect to be regularly maintained by your software provider. Ask for a copy as part of your vendor review process. If they do not have one immediately handy, move on. If they do, there are three key elements to look for:
- First, what is the uptime you can expect? In other words, what percentage of the time will the system be online and ready for use? You need to be assured of at least 99% uptime, 99.9% is better. The devil is in the detail. At 99%, the system can be down 7 hours a month! At 99.9%, the service will be up for all but about 45 minutes a month. Note that we use a monthly metric here at VisionLink. If the measurement is on an annual basis, then long outages are allowable because downtime can sum across many months (e.g. up to 84 hours at one time). Also look for regularly scheduled, or even better pre-schedule maintenance periods. Another item to explore: is the uptime record a matter of luck or good management? For example, VisionLink monitors literally hundreds of parts of our overall system every minute of every day to ensure stable and successful operations.
- Second, can the firm demonstrate that they can meet unexpected levels of peak demand? Assurances are nice on paper but can the provider prove they have been through a trial by fire and succeeded? Hurricane Katrina was such an event for VisionLink, as was the more recent tornado through Joplin Missouri, which caused a 400% increase in system demand. Look for long-term evidence that the provider can rise to the occasion so that when a crisis hits your community your core technology will not fail.
- Third, check the Service Level Agreement for continuity of operations planning should a crisis befall your provider. Is there code in escrow (ie. an insurance plan giving you a copy of the software in dire situations)? Have they located offices and server facilities away from flood plains? Are their server systems fully redundant from the incoming Internet connections all the way through to their back up generators? Do they have primary and secondary server facilities, and if they do, does the data from the primary service continually update the fallback facility? Within minutes or hours? How much data will you lose switching to the fallback facility? Without these pieces in place, no wealth of features will matter when you cannot conduct your daily operations.
5. Excellent Training and Support?
Training and support is critically important both during the transition and also over the long term. Look for a provider that has a launch team that is specifically charged with helping you make the move from your previous to your new platform. This team’s job is to take the lessons won by other customers and present you with informed choices that fit your situation, making the shift as smooth as possible.
The provider’s help desk should be highly responsive. Look for assurances that 95%+ of all help desk tickets are responded to within a business day or less.
Training services are typically offered through a package, by the hour, or on a subscription basis. Packages and hourly rates sound great during the selling cycle, but in reality your staff will change and you may not have discretionary resources to train up new staff as the need arises. A subscription plan will allow your staff to participate in regularly offered trainings as you need them at no additional charge.
Also, ask about users groups and other organized means of engaging customers by which the provider listens to and accepts feedback, direction for future upgrades, and aligns their work with the needs of their users.
6. An Easy Workflow Conversion?
As you begin to launch your new solution, your day-to-day users will either be excited about a new tool set or cautious about having to learn a new way of getting work done (or most likely, a mix of both). Look for a solution that can be flexible enough that it can mirror at least some of your current workflow to ease everyone into the new system.
Similarly, you may want to find a solution that can deploy novice and expert workflows simultaneously--meaning that the tools to manage clients or answer calls can be arranged with more or fewer tips and scripts based on the user’s level of experience.
Some key differences will of course exist--this is one of the reasons you wanted to improve your technical platform in the first place. Be specific about those changes with your staff and review the points of similarity, but train to the points of difference.
7. Data Conversion or Reckless Migration?
Data conversion is more complicated than most want to admit. On the other hand, tools now exist to move just about anything to anywhere. Look for a vendor that has more than one way forward to convert your data. Ideally, your solution provider should be able to convert data from your old to new system using standards-based protocols (assuming both your old and new system adhere to a common standard). If this is not the case, your provider could also use some purposely designed conversion tools. Regardless, they should be able to demonstrate experience with custom data exchanges. Again, ask for descriptions of past projects both on a one-time and on-going basis.
Note that moving from one system to another forces a key decision about your data. It is the hidden secret, or the hidden dependency within the topic of data exchange. If you force the new system to accept all of your old data, you may be unable to use some of the best features of the new system. Or said another way, your new system most likely has created a more effective or efficient way of managing data and if you force the new system to replicate all the data content and structure of your old system, then you may bring many of the problems with your old data into the new system unintentionally. Sometimes it is better to bring only a basic level of data across and then re-build some of your data to take advantage of your new technology.
8. Proven or Cross-Your-Fingers Security?
Security and permissions controls are another hidden cost of operations. To build and maintain a highly secure software platform requires a great deal of work that is typically unobservable and in many cases not even discussed.
The reality is that any significant system of servers is under attack all the time, every day. The firm needs to have the resources, experience, and obligations to ensure that it continually advances its security systems to meet increasingly sophisticated attacks.
Ensure that your provider offers levels of encryption used by commercial banks and the military. Check that passwords are not visible even to administrators and that they are encrypted and hashed.
Given the sophistication of security systems, ask if there is a customer or other third party that has reviewed the firm’s security operations that can act as an endorsement. For example, nearly half of VisionLink’s technical team is badged by U.S. Homeland Security because of the nature of some of our work, and its software has passed the necessary compliance requirements to help the American Red Cross manage financial assistance debit cards distributed to survivors of disasters.
9. Only Technical or Strategic Support?
While technology is its own science, the art and craft of successful implementation often depends on expert facilitation and guidance. Here is the determining factor: if you are looking for improved technology but your day-to-day operations are not changing as part of the conversion, then your vendor’s consulting and facilitation skills are not critical.
On the other hand, if you foresee changes in your operation, particularly if you are beginning to work with additional funders, other agencies, or other community partners then your software provider’s facilitation skills may be truly instrumental to your success.
For example, VisionLink’s team sponsors Communities of Practice for many users, such as the National Breakthrough Network, which regularly designs and deploys community planning summits, state and national Institutes, and works internationally as well. Under contract with state governments, foundations including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and others, the team is nationally recognized for its ability to forge meaningful consensus, to identify benchmarks and key metrics, and to help teams design their own new and sustainable best practices.
When you are acting as the hub of your community, when you are leading change, it is highly useful to bring in outside facilitators who break through barriers, forge agreements, and build a sense of urgency and possibility around what you know needs to be done. Look for providers who help you implement your objectives, rather than come to town with a pre-determined package of solutions.
10. Trusted Advice?
We have found that being a good source of expertise is valuable even if you are not a client of ours. The exchange of ideas is always useful. So feel free to contact us with a question or a challenge; we will be happy to lend an experienced ear to your opportunity. We all work better when we work together.
Want to share this with a boss, partner, or friend? Click here to download full White Paper.
3101 Iris Avenue, Suite 240