By: Judy Tucker, business consultant, Blueridge Software, Inc.
Once you’ve determined that doing a better job of managing contracts is a priority and that the best solution is off-the-shelf software, the next step is to establish selection criteria.
ASP Or Client/Server?
You’ll need to consider whether client/server architecture, in which users access the system directly, or ASP, in which they access it via a Web browser, better suits your needs. There are plusses and minuses to each.
Advantages of Web-based programs include portability and, sometimes, price (particularly for organizations with large numbers of read-only users). Disadvantages include security, speed and screen display.
If the vendor hosts your data, security is a prime consideration. Should you ever want to get your data back, be sure that the supplier will return not only your source documents but also the meta-data derived from those documents. Access speed can be an issue because of the vagaries of the Internet. The speed of screen refreshes can be problematic for data entry, sorting, searching, and reporting functions.
Web-based programs offer limited control over how information is displayed. Users may find the inability to customize drop-down menus or to remove extraneous fields frustrating or distracting – affecting efficiency.
Advantages of client/server programs include security, speed and report display.
Client/server software is not as widely accessible. But commonly used remote desktop technologies like Citrix, Virtual Server, and Terminal Services make distance computing practical. Access speed is more consistent and dependent only upon factors that are under your control (the traffic on your network, for example). This is important if most of your users will be manipulating data.
Your initial investment in client/server software may or may not be higher, depending upon the proportion of your users who are read/write. If you are comparing client/server models to hosted ASP solutions that charge monthly fees, remember that those fees are ongoing and are often based upon the number of records in your database. As your database grows, so do your costs.
With client/server systems, security is not an issue. Your data is never out of your hands. You are storing it and controlling who sees and works with it.
Client/server systems also offer much better control and customization of features. This can favorably affect ease of use.
Proprietary Data Storage Format – A Red Flag
Danger, Will Robinson! Whether you choose ASP or client/server architecture, be sure that the system will store your data in a standard, non-proprietary format. Any proprietary format should raise a red flag.
For one thing, you may want to work with your data from the backend, either for reporting purposes or to tie into other databases.
Infinitely more important, however, is the ability to move your data out if necessary. You may never need to get your information out of the system, but you must be sure that if you need to, you can!
Features & Flexibility
When you think about features, keep it as simple as possible. Ask whether a program meets your basic needs.
When you evaluate a product, be sure that it will store the specific information you need and that you’re comfortable with the way in which it allows you to view and retrieve the data. Consider whether there are layers of complexity that you don’t want.
Flexibility is particularly important with packaged software. Is the program too narrowly defined, or not targeted enough? If the software is intended for general business use, is it agile enough to accommodate your specific requirements?
Ease Of Use
How friendly is the user interface? How complete and accessible is the documentation? Is training needed for all users? Or optional for those wanting a jump-start?
What costs are involved in implementing the software? Does the vendor charge for help with installation? Is user training required, and, if so, what are the costs?
Is the system scalable? Can you start small and upgrade to a larger version later? An easy upgrade path allows you to leverage your investment in time, money, and knowledge of the software.
Look for responsive technical support. Make sure the supplier will provide personal responses to technical questions. Check references. Has the software been relatively trouble-free? How effectively does the vendor work with customers to solve any problems that do arise?
Although there may not be a simple formula for pinpointing when contract management software pays for itself, keep in mind ROI benefits may occur soon after implementation. That may become clear to you the first time an alert prevents you from an overpayment, or maybe even the first time you easily retrieve a contract record rather than asking a separate department for its files.
Core Requirements: A Sample List
Summarize your core requirements in a brief list. Here’s a sample of criteria you might use. Just add sub-points to the list where necessary.
- Easy to use
- Priced within budget
- All charges (software, installation, implementation, training) knowable up front
- Stores the data you need to store in a way that makes sense for your organization
- Provides visibility into key contract provisions
- Supports automatic alerts (visual and/or via email)
- Includes a way to store or link actual contracts, notes, and related documents
- Simple to administer in your environment
- Offers robust security that doesn’t interfere with ease of use
- Responsive, responsible technical support
An Excellent Beginning
Outlining the criteria for your contract management system is, of course, just the beginning (although it’s a good one). Implementation is still ahead of you, and designing and building your database is not a trivial project. But knowing what you’re looking for in contract management software will go a long way toward making sure you choose the product that’s right for you.